2008 Awards Recipient: $100,000
Foundation: Land for Tillers' Freedom (LAFTI)
Location: Tamil Nadu, India
An unfathomable tragedy was a turning point in Krishnammal Jagannathan's life. In 1968, 44 Dalits—members of India's lowest caste and some of its poorest residents, previously known as the “Untouchables”— were murdered at Kilavenmani village in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu. This devastating occurrence proved to be the impetus for founding Land for Tillers' Freedom (LAFTI).
“My mission was to provide livelihood by abolishing landlessness among the poor and bring humanness and dignity to their lives,” Jagannathan says. “The Dalits were banned from wearing chapals [foot wear], collecting drinking water in the village well and temple entry. They were tied to the trees and forced to eat cow-dung when anyone broke the norms. All of this happened during the 1970s and I resolved to change all of this, to bring an end to the worst form of apartheid in the 20th century.”
“Bridging the gap between the rich and poor, bringing the landless and landed rich to the negotiating table to share and care for each other is most fulfilling to me.”
Formally founded in 1981, LAFTI allowed Jagannathan and her husband to work toward justice and land rights in Tamil Nadu, India by elevating the social status and acceptance of the Dalits through housing and farmland provisions. LAFTI is equipping the landless with land through loans and work opportunities, thereby allowing them to become self-sufficient. LAFTI's skills workshops allow people,during the nonagricultural season,to support themselves through entrepreneurial efforts like mat weaving, tailoring, plumbing, carpentry, masonry, computer education and electronics.
Through LAFTI, Jagannathan has negotiated land subsidies with the government and reduced-interest bank loans to purchase land. Because of her work and its undeniable results, the government of India is also considering implementing LAFTI's approach to increase the peaceful transfer of land.
However, LAFTI is about more than protection of land rights. It encourages empowerment and sustainable practices to benefit other oppressed communities. Hundreds have benefited from educational and outreach opportunities that promote wasteland development, self-employment and environmental protection.
With dignity, vision and an indefatigable spirit, Jagannathan is improving the living conditions and the future of the Dalits. LAFTI has changed the lives of 13,000 families and those who were once powerless are now in charge of guiding their future.
“Bridging the gap between the rich and poor, bringing the landless and landed rich to the negotiating table to share and care for each other is most fulfilling to me,” she says. “Hope in the midst of misery and poverty by lighting the lamp in the homes of Dalit women is an enriching moment for me.”
Learn more about Jagannathan's work with LAFTI and Friends of LAFTI. Visit the Opus Prize foundation website to learn more about the award.