Krishnammal Jagannathan knows what it’s like to be an “untouchable”.
Brigid Marshall | December 2008 issue
Krishnammal Jagannathan knows what it’s like to be an “untouchable.” Born a Dalit: rock bottom in India’s complex caste system, 82 years ago, she was expected to spend her life as a peasant, scorned by other villagers. But that wasn’t to be, thanks to friends and family members who saved enough money to send her to school. Because of this generosity, she made herself a promise. “I then decided to donate my life to serve these other people,” she says.
So it was natural that while Jagannathan was studying economics at the University of Madurai, she got involved with Mahatma Gandhi’s Sarvodaya Movement, which was devoted to leveling the playing field. “We were fighting to solve the social problems of the caste system,” she says. Many Dalit people, whose numbers are estimated at 160 million in India, still work the land as modern-day serfs, hostage to an oppressive social structure, adds Jagannathan. “Someone must be there to liberate these people.”
So in 1981, she and her husband, Sankaralingam, now 95, a member of a high caste who quit college to answer Gandhi’s call, founded Land for Tillers’ Freedom (LAFTI) to further rural economic development. Based in the village of Kuthur, LAFTI is negotiating with the government for land distribution and with banks to reduce interest on loans for the purchase of land by poor families. This year, the pair’s epic journey has been honored with the Right Livelihood Award, a $290,000 prize split with two other winners. “It’s taken a long time,” Jagannathan says, “but we have truly been able to achieve something.”