Monday, January 18, 2010

The Work

I am sitting here with Nagaraj beside me. The TV is on, and we are watching a show about “big cats” – he gives me the name of wildlife in Tamil, and I give him the English. He is amused by the fact that we can communicate a bit without my being able to understand virtually a single word he is saying, and he the same with me. “Yes,” he says, and smiles. He is also copying rows and rows of English words.

I realize that I haven’t spent any time yet writing about the work that LAFTI is engaged in. I thought I would do that when I reached the headquarters in Kuthur, but perhaps I should do that now, and then provide updates when I arrive.

The arrangement with the state government still holds, at least for now. Krishnammal and her team negotiate the price of land with the local landlords. The government pays half, the beneficiaries (all women) take out a loan for the other half. The state development corporation provides agricultural loans when needed. LAFTI has an agricultural cooperative that can supply tools and seed and other inputs. The women pay back the loans in very public ceremonies. The government gets to claim they have done something for the poor (a drop in the bucket in the total context of the state), but meanwhile LAFTI is consolidating two entire districts where (if all goes right), there will be no landlords, and little control by outside politicians, just a self-governing, land-owning and cultivating peasantry among the lowest classes of society, in 500 villages that are almost totally self-reliant, and able to meet their own needs independent of the global marketplace. Gandhi’s village republics begin to appear in view. This is truly an alternative modernity, an answer to the ravages of globalization and neo-liberalism. We see the big picture; the recipients are more focused on being able to care for their own families in dependable fashion, perhaps for the first time in 700 years.

Krishnammal is now negotiating with the very last remaining landlords in the nine villages surrounding Kilvenmani, the place where the signal event – the burning of 44 Dalit women and children on Christmas night 1968 – set things in motion more than 40 years ago. One of the negotiations has dragged on for three months; the landlord’s children want him to sell (they will bring him to California), but his family has been attached to this land for centuries, and the emotional attachment is hard to break. LAFTI’s staff has not been able to fully appreciate this, and at times have treated him brusquely, causing Krishnammal to step in and smooth things over. I have been deputized to visit him when we are in the area to help him appreciate what a great thing this is. I will be aided by the fact that she has been on all the TV stations and in the newspapers for the past 10 days or so. She expects to complete the transaction within two weeks.

About 70% of LAFTI staff time is normally taken up with land reform. Negotiating with landlords is just the beginning. Registering the land for the recipients now requires 18 separate certificates for each landless person, authenticated by a dozen separate governmental agencies or village officials. And, now, seven documents are required of each landlord! It is easy to appreciate how important relations with the landlords are when one understands that they must be brought to as many as seven separate offices, by Dalits no less whose very touch would have been considered polluting 10 or 20 years earlier. LAFTI tries to hold a ceremony for the landlords and recipients, solemn, and expressive of solidarity between the rich and poor. There is to be no general rejoicing: nothing must be done which would offend the remaining landlords. Instead, we rejoice inwardly.

The work is monumental in scope, and LAFTI has to strike while the iron is hot (any change in government and all future plans could go up in smoke). In addition, from January-March, following the harvest, LAFTI workers have to go around to each of the 7,000 or so current loan beneficiaries and collect for the loan repayments, and make sure they are properly recorded. And each one must be forthcoming: LAFTI can’t afford even a single failure. If they don’t repay the loans, again, all goes down the tubes. Of the first 1,015 loan recipients, about half have already paid back the loans in full.) So, on occasion, other parts of LAFTI’s program do not receive full attention – such as setting up the library for the hostel children, or keeping the kitchen gardens going or pursuing other appropriate technologies. It is not for lack of interest or willingness to follow through, but rather a lack of funds and staff stretched thin. It is easy to raise funds for the land from the government (though previously it was managed privately – it took more time and money, but it could be done), and from abroad for special projects, but LAFTI’s greatest need is keep the infrastructure intact, which is more difficult, and they need money for more staff. And land must remain the first priority: it is, after all, LAND for Tillers Freedom, and without the land, all the technologies are irrelevant, and the rest charitable sops. This is not a charity venture, but a bold experiment in nonviolent transformation and people’s empowerment.

The staff is also engaged with the hundreds of village committees LAFTI has set up. These are critical, as they provide the foundation of knowledge upon which the land distribution must be based. Also, they are avenues by which village disputes can be handled, bypassing the courts or governmental bodies, or even local bodies in which Dalits have no voice, providing the basis for self-governance. There are also hundreds of women’s committees. All of these have served LAFTI well, for when there is need for mass mobilization – whether to clear a thorn forest for cultivation, or to protest prawn farm expansions – thousands of people will come out at a moment’s notice. And when there are floods or extreme draughts, LAFTI can distribute aid through the village committees.

There are now approximately 140 children in four hostels (a new one has just opened in the home of the former landlord I wrote about in “The Miracle of Kilvenmani”), mostly sons and daughters of migrant laborers who must leave their children behind. Here, they are fed, clothed, housed, and educated at the local schools (sometimes private schools when the public institutions are simply too wretched.) LAFTI strategically placed the two largest hostels within 200 yards of the best high school in one of the districts, high schools which formerly had virtually no Dalit students at all, and certainly no children of migrant laborers. Currently, there are two students who have graduated and (with some welcome foreign support) are well on their way to becoming physicians, and there are future engineers and accountants as well. Still, I wish there was a way to give these students wider exposure to the world; perhaps we could attract some foreign student interns (another plan that I know will go unimplemented at least for awhile.)

There are successful training programs in carpentry/masonry, computers, and sewing, and small cottage industries in mat weaving, sambar powder manufacture, and toilet pan making. There are ideas for others, but these will have to wait as well.

LAFTI has a goat distribution project, but with a twist. Women have to save one-fifth of the cost of the goat, and they have to do so at the local bank. While a case can be made for micro-finance, the reality is that, for Dalits, the need is teach them to use mainstream institutions – none of these women would have set foot in a bank before. Micro-loan enterprises would isolate them still further. Each saver receives a passbook. When the amount needed is reached, the bank (with the backing of LAFTI through the Friends of LAFTI Foundation) provides a loan for the other 80%, with the understanding that it will be paid back from the sale of milk or offspring.

Sigh. On top of all this, Krishnammal now expects LAFTI to go on “war footing” (I chide her for the metaphor) to build new houses. Brickmaking, which had started in October, but came to an abrupt halt in the floods of the last two-and-half months, will start up again next week. It has taken two years to get to this point, and all the fundraising and Awards monies are ready to be put to work (and each beneficiary has saved 5,000 rupees - $111 – toward the housebuilding, which, for 1,000 women, provides LAFTI with working capital of $111,000.) Krishnammal has been waiting for this moment since she was 12 years old, when she first appealed to her friends in school to abolish the mudhuts like that in which she had grown up. (In her native village Aiyenkottai, which is made up of 320 Dalit families, this has indeed happened, as a tribute to her, with the village committee raising funds for even the poorest family to have a real house.)

The villagers are going to make the bricks themselves under LAFTI’s supervision. Each brickmaker will be provided a brickmaker’s uniform, symbolizing enlistment in LAFTI’s “Army of Compassion”. I am having one made for me, and Friends of LAFTI is providing $1 a day to feed and temporarily house each brickmaker. Krishnammal wants a thousand houses by April. I told her it doesn’t pencil out – bricks can’t be made that fast (125 is more likely, and even that is highly optimistic). All right, she says, but she notes the Neyveli Corporation is prepared to donate more brickmaking machines; they just need a demonstration that it can all come together. So does the government, and perhaps some foundations as well. The idea of Dalits building their own homes, good homes, with bathrooms, toilets, and biosand water filters, is almost too shocking to imagine. Of course, LAFTI has built homes before, but nothing near to this scale.

Krishnammal is also pressing the state government for a subsidy of 55,000 rupees ($1,220) per house, for five thousand houses annually. She is thinking big, really big, and we are all hoping that the stars will align. She tells me she is also thinking about solar energy for the houses, but hasn’t told anyone else about it yet. There are more questions than answers, but Krishnammal is quick to remind us, following her Saint Ramalinga, “everything is possible.”

I imagine the staff are overwhelmed; I will have to pull out my best motivational speech. The staff make a bare living, roughly $67 a month - about the same amount as a nursery school worker - and most have received an acre of land as well, which in a good year brings in another $35. But inflation in basic food stuffs and other commodities have hit them hard as well. However, their dedication is great, and rare it is for a LAFTI worker to leave, given the psychic satisfaction of participating in something the likes of which have never been seen before.

We have a frank talk. I pull out my passport with its 10-year multiple-entry visa and say that I think I have ten years. She says that’s fine, she only thinks she has five.

Please help provide more wind for our sails.


Post a Comment

<< Home