For two long lifetimes of work dedicated to realising in practice the Gandhian vision of social justice and sustainable human development, for which they have been referred to as 'India's soul'.
Krishnammal (1926-) and Sankaralingam (1912-2013) Jagannathan are Indian activists for social justice and sustainable human development, working with socially marginalised and vulnerable populations. They have carried the Gandhian legacy into the 21st century, never ceasing to serve the needs of Dalits, landless people and those threatened by the greed of landlords and multinational corporations.
The Jagannathans have demonstrated a life-long commitment to protesting against social injustices and advancing the rights of the most vulnerable populations in India. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, the Jagannathans have advocated for the redistribution of land to rural landless people. They saw this as an essential element for building a more equitable society and ensuring sustainable development.
In 1981, Krishnammal and Sankaralingam Jagannathan founded the non-governmental organisation Land for Tillers’ Freedom (LAFTI). The organisation’s aim has been to help poor people – especially women – buy land, redistributing over 15,000 acres in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu over the years. Additionally, the Jagannathans’ efforts have also resulted in the redistribution of about 32,000 acres to landless Dalits in the state of Bihar. LAFTI’s focus has since also expanded to constructing houses, providing education and job training, distributing domestic animals and giving emergency assistance when needed.
Krishnammal Jagannathan was born to a landless Dalit family in 1926. Despite her family’s poverty, she obtained university-level education and was soon committed to the Gandhian Sarvodaya Movement, through which she met her husband, Sankaralingam Jagannathan (1912-2013), also a noted Gandhian.
Sankaralingam Jagannathan came from a rich family but gave up his college studies in 1930 in response to Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation and disobedience. He joined the Quit India Movement in 1942 and spent three and a half years in jail before India gained its independence in 1947. During this time he already had a considerable impact as a campaigner on behalf of the poor.
Sankaralingam and Krishnammal Jagannathan married in 1950, having decided only to marry in independent India.
Redistributing land to the landless
The Jagannathans decided early in their life that one of the key requirements for building a Gandhian society was empowering the rural poor by redistribution of land to the landless.
From 1950 to 1952 Sankaralingam Jagannathan was with Vinoba Bhave in Northern India on his Bhoodan (land-gift) Padayatra (pilgrimage on foot), the march appealing to landlords to give one-sixth of their land to the landless, while Krishnammal completed her teacher-training course in Madras. He then returned to Tamil Nadu to start the Bhoodhan movement, and until 1968 the two worked for land redistribution through Vinoba Bhave’s Gramdan movement (Village Gift, the next phase of the land-gift movement), and through Satyagraha (non-violent resistance). For this work, Sankaralingam Jagannathan was imprisoned many times. Between 1953 and 1967, the couple played an active role in the Bhoodhan movement spearheaded by Vinoba Bhave (the spiritual Guru of Gandhi), through which about 4 million acres of land were distributed to thousands of landless poor across several Indian states.
Much land given over under these campaigns was infertile. To make it productive, Sankaralingam Jagannathan started in 1968 the Association of Sarva Seva Farmers (ASSEFA) of which he was Chairman until 1993, and which has become one of the best known and most effective Indian non-governmental development institutions with its work spread over a number of states. ASSEFA’s essential enduring technique, rooted in Gandhian philosophy and based on deep commitment, applies to all of Sankaralingam and Krishnammal Jagannathan’s work: to confront a practical problem with a down-to-earth approach of planning and action. The participants in this work share amongst themselves the fruit of the labour and show to others in a practical way that the improbable is not impossible.
After a particularly horrific incident in 1968, the brutal burning of 42 landless women and children following a wage dispute, the couple started to work in Thanjavur District in Tamil Nadu to concentrate on land reform issues.
The birth of LAFTI
In 1981, the couple founded Land for the Tillers’ Freedom (LAFTI). LAFTI’s purpose was to bring the landlords and landless poor to the negotiating table, obtain loans to enable the landless to buy land at reasonable prices and then to help them work it cooperatively so that the loans could be repaid.
Progress was initially slow: banks were unwilling to lend money and the stamp duty on the registration of small lots was exorbitant. But Krishnammal Jagannathan managed to overcome the political and bureaucratic hurdles. The organisation has helped to redistribute over 15,000 acres in the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu over the years. Additionally, Jagannathan’s efforts have also resulted in the redistribution of about 32,000 acres to landless Dalits in the state of Bihar.
LAFTI’s other activities and outreach programmes
Although a prime focus, land-redistribution is by no means the only concern of LAFTI. It also runs village industries, like mat-weaving, rope-making, carpentry, masonry, fishery and gives training to Dalit boys and girls. To bridge the digital divide, LAFTI organizes computer training for underprivileged, particularly Dalit, girls. It also organises Gram Sabhas (village committees) in 100 villages in East Thanjavur district, with a team of dozens of dedicated men and women, who are now actively engaged in implementing the LAFTI programme.
LAFTI’s economic activities are substantial: Brick kilns have been constructed and many houses built, and fish farming established on a significant scale. LAFTI was also very constructively involved in the famine relief programmes in 1987 and the reconstruction programme after the tsunami in the Nagapattinam coastal area.
Before LAFTI came in, the land site on which the landless labourers lived did not belong to them and they were often evicted by landlords or the government in the name of development. Due to LAFTI’s efforts, the government has enacted a bill by which the land site on which a labourer’s thatched hut is located is legally allocated to the family. The "people-participatory-environmental-friendly" house-building project, in which one adult member of the family contributes labour, is currently benefiting about 5,000 families.
Protecting the coastal ecosystem and struggling against prawn farms
Since 1992, Sankaralingam and Krishnammal Jagannathan have addressed another major land challenge to the poor of the region: the establishment of prawn farms along the coast. The problem is not because of the local landlords but big industrialists from capital cities like Madras, Mumbai, Calcutta, New Delhi and Hyderabad. They often occupy large areas of land (500-1000 acres) for aquaculture in coastal areas, which not only throws the landless labourers out of employment but also converts fertile and cultivable land into a salty desert after seven or eight years when the prawn companies move on. Such operations also result in the seepage of seawater into the groundwater in the neighbourhood, so that people are deprived of their drinking water resources. The result is that even more small farmers sell their meagre land-holdings to multinational prawn companies and move to the cities, filling urban slums.
To address this human and ecological tragedy Sankaralingam Jagannathan organised the whole of LAFTI’s village movement to raise awareness among the people to oppose prawn farms. Since 1993, villagers have offered Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) through rallies, fasts and demonstrations in protest against the establishment of prawn farms. They have been beaten up, their houses have been burnt, and LAFTI workers have been imprisoned, because of false accusations of looting and arson. Undeterred by this, Sankaralingam Jagannathan filed a "public interest petition" before the Indian Supreme Court, which in turn asked the National Environmental Engineering Institute of India (NEERI) to investigate the matter. NEERI’s investigation report highlighted the environmental cost of the prawn farms to the nation and recommended all prawn farms within 500 meters of the coast be banned.
In December 1996, the Supreme Court issued a ruling against intensive shrimp farming in cultivable lands within 500 meters of the coastal area. But because of the prawn farmers’ local political influence, the Supreme Court judgement was not implemented on the ground. The legal battle around the prawn farms is still not resolved. The Jagannathans continued their struggle to establish non-exploitative, eco-friendly communities in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu.
Sankaralingam Jagannathan passed away on February 12, 2013, at the age of 100.
Further achievements and honours
In their lives, either independently or together, the Jagannathans have established a total of seven non-governmental organisations for the poor. Besides this, Krishnammal Jagannathan has also played an active role in wider public life: she has been a Senate member of the Gandhigram Trust and University and the Madurai University; a member of a number of local and state social welfare committees; and a member of the National Committee on Education, the Land Reform Committee and the Planning Committee.
These activities have gained for the Jagannathans a high profile in India, and they have won many prestigious Awards: the Swami Pranavananda Peace Award (1987); the Jamnalal Bajaj Award (1988) and Padma Shri in 1989. In 1996 the couple received the Bhagavan Mahaveer Award “for propagating non-violence.” In 1999, Krishnammal Jagannathan was awarded a Summit Foundation Award (Switzerland), and in 2008 an 'Opus Prize’ given by the University of Seattle.