Sarvodaya Day is celebrated every year at the Constructive Workers’ Home at Gandhigram to commemorate the memory of the late Sarvodaya leader Jegannathan. Over the years, this event has attracted many people from all over the world and India, and from the villages near Nagapattinam. Due to the corona pandemic, the event this year was not held as a major function with hundreds gathering at the same place. A few of us came in person while many others joined us virtually for the three day conference held from Feb 10 to Feb 12, 2021. Speakers also delivered their speeches in person and from around the world by signing in online. There were some stimulating conversations as at the end of the speeches. The hybrid model made the conference a global event with panelists and participants signing in from various parts of India, Asia, Africa, Europe and America.
Day One – The Challenges during the Pandemic and After
The first day of the conference had speeches on the theme, ‘The challenges, opportunities and solutions during the pandemic and after’. Professor Dr. L.Raja of Gandhigram Rural University anchored the event and introduced the speakers.
The first speaker, Professor Richard Rose, teaches at Northampton University, UK. He spoke of the challenges faced in education throughout the world. He pointed out that the socio-economic gap has increased in recent years. He discussed why children from marginalised groups are more vulnerable than others. We will never achieve equity in education if we do not address poverty or marginalisation of girls. We will never improve learning in children until we address nutrition inadequacies. Three quarters of children (258 million) who don’t attend school live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Girls face more barriers than boys, said Professor Rose. More millionaires have been created in India in the last 20 years than whole of Europe, he observed. He also delved on the psychological impact of Corona and not going to school on children: monotony, anguish, irritation, etc. He termed the technology interventions as pseudo solutions as all children don’t have access to internet or television. He also raised the questions, do all children need to learn the same curriculum? What should children learn?
The next speaker, Heather Cummins, spoke from Zambia. She works with the voluntary organization, SSAP, and is based out of a remote village there; the nearest town was 80 kms away. Since there is no electricity at the village, she uses a solar panel to charge her phone and laptop. The natural isolation of the village has helped in keeping away the pandemic though the people were blissfully negligent or ignorant of the social distancing norms and wearing masks. They were not too bothered as they haven’t personally seen the impact. They have also frequently faced high rates of Malaria, HIV, Typhoid and cholera. Due to climate change, the rain pattern has changed. Earlier they used to get rains from November to April. Now they suffer a drought every two years and floods every third year. They have done nothing to pollute the world but they suffer the most because of the impacts of pollution. Heather Cummins wishes to set up an Ahimsa ashram in Sierra Leone. She considers Gandhi to be her dead Guru. She has learnt Gandhian thoughts at Gujarat Vidyapeet, Ahmedabad. She says she couldn’t have done any of her work without Gandhi. The people who come to take micro loans from her organisation, do not even wear shoes. They wear torn clothing. They just want the money to be able to eat their food now and think of how to repay later on. The small project of Ms.Cummins is their only real hope or chance anyone has given them. She says, one person can do a lot, and we are not here for vanity, like peacocks in India; we are here for each other.
Dr. Pankajam, the next speaker, is a former Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram Rural University. She said she was struck with wonder to see how disciplined the people in India were, when the first one-day token lockdown was announced. Everyone were inside their houses. But when the lockdown was extended indefinitely, the people started feeling anxious. They began wondering what kind of virus was this. The education of children was affected the most. How can children learn through online education? The hilly areas did not even have electricity. And they had no smart phone. Learning should be for total development of the child. It should not just be for building bodies. It should be building souls. Can we do that with technology, she wondered. What we have now cannot be said to be an education system at all. Children are isolated from the society. She appealed to all educated people to come forward and help children in the villages and remote areas.
The last speaker for the day was Dr.Jennifer Ladd, who runs the organisation, Class Action, to work towards addressing the inequities related to race, colour and class. It was 4 am for her when she spoke. She came to India for the first time in the 1980s. She met Krishnammal and Jegannathan at that time and was hugely inspired by them. She has continued to engage with their movement and with India since then.
Jennifer Ladd said America is known for its wealth. There is a lot of wealth but there is amazing depravation too. The contrast is so painful, she added. 38 million or 12% of Americans live in poverty in US (2018 US Census data). 15 million of those were children. During the pandemic, the wealthiest became wealthier, resulting in 39% increase in wealth for billionaires. The richest five saw 85% increase in their combined wealth during this period. (March 2020 to Jan 2021). There are inequalities already existing along the lines of Race, Class, Homelessness, English language learning, Disabilities, Special education needs, urban/rural, gender, etc. Death rates during the corona pandemic have been observed to be higher for coloured people and is the highest for Native Americans. The immense inequity of zoom schools is a huge and heartbreaking problem for which there is no suitable and equitable solution. Access to broadband is an issue for many children. If there are 5 children in a household with only one phone with a parent, it becomes very difficult for children to attend the zoom schools. Elementary school children spend 4-5 hours looking at a computer, they have stopped playing outdoors, do not interact with other children and are therefore not developing socially. However, some students find learning on zoom a better way of learning. For the special education students and for students with emotional problems, dissolution of schools dissolved their participation. Absenteeism has doubled. Homeless children are at higher risk, even as Covid leads to homelessness due to job loss, increased medical costs and families falling apart. The Covid impact is more severe on women. Women and mothers are dropping out of the workforce to take care of their families. Layoffs are hitting women much harder. Schools were also playing the role of providing food for poor children. One in five children go hungry and have no food security. They run the risk of going hungry. Some schools are distributing food even during the pandemic. Jeniffer also presented a number of creative solutions. She said we should take advantage of the sweetness of home by allowing children to show their pets and siblings. A recess should be given while leaving the zoom open so that the kids can talk to each other without directions from the teacher. There should also be teacher directed games. Some parents bring neighbour kids together to learn independently. Some of them create micro schools where families are hiring teachers to ensure kids from the neighbourhood can be together and continue to have social interactions. We need to continuously explore to see how schools can systemise the process of connecting families to community resources and how to centre equity in all aspects of teaching and learning. She concluded by stating we need a widespread push to recognise the identity and health of the whole child in K-12 education which will help educators to design support systems that can reduce inequity on multiple levels.
Later Vasimalai, the Chairman of Dhan Foundation, gave the concluding remarks and facilitated an interactive session involving all participants and panelists. While answering one of the questions, Dr.Richard Rose said, Covid hasn’t changed things; it has only created greater awareness of things that already existed. Dr. David Willis said, “This situation is not going away. It is a rehearsal for the climate crisis that is coming.” Dr.Bhoomikumar also concurred stating that since man is destroying nature, the interval between pandemics is narrowing. Vasimalai discussed with me about the possibility of a family functioning as a school. He said education is everybody’s business. He brought the day to a close with the profound remark that Philosophy should guide science.
Day 2 – Sustainable Agriculture
The conference continued on the second day with the theme, ‘Farming community’s struggles and strategies in the light of corporatization and commodification of natural wealth (land, water & air) and developing people-friendly policies.’
Paamayan, who spoke first, has had a long association with the Sarvodaya movement. He is one of the foremost scholars on farming in Tamil Nadu. He emphasised that India was an agriculture based society. The changes in climate have cause disruptions in the amount of rain, temperature, and water levels, making the role and nature of farming more critical. He presented four overarching points. First, the self-sustainability of farming has been destroyed by the Green Revolution. Seeds and fertilisers have been taken away from the farmer. Second, India is a democracy. Only if people get together to consolidate their voices, they get the benefits they deserve. But the farming community has not been in a position to gather and raise a unified voice. They are splintered and isolated. When the farmers launch a struggle, like the one happening in Delhi now, they are the ones who are most affected, unlike in other struggles, where other parties are affected. After the first five year plan, all laws have targeted to remove the farmer from their land. Thirdly, the markets are never beneficial to the farmer. Fourthly, the solution for this can be found in the traditional farming methods of Tamil Nadu – what Paamayan call as Integrated Farms which have self-sustenance at their core.
The ancient Tamils classified land into four types of land based on the terrain or landscape : Kurinji, Mullai, Pālai, Neythal and Marutham. Additionally, there was Palai to describe kurinji and mullai lands which were affected by droughts. Each of these have unique characteristics – based on the terrain, and also based on the people, animals, plants, etc. from those terrains. These were called Five Thinais. Depending one on the type of landscape, the method of farming differed. Kurinji farming resembled the ’no tilling’ method of Masanobu Fukuoka. Like in permaculture, the Kurinji lands had forests with seven layers of trees and plants. The rain and sun would not touch the ground directly. The leaves and twigs falling on the soil would accumulate making the soil spongy and fertile. There was no need to plough. In the Mullai lands, the people made compost with the dung they obtained from the cattle. In the Marudam lands, they came up with irrigation systems. They stored water in dams like Kallanai. They dug 40000 lakes in Tamil Nadu. They used 36 types of ploughs. It was a highly productive method of farming resulting in the creation of empires like the Cholas. In the Neythal lands, they grew fish and rice together. Paamayan clarified that he did not talk about these to uphold the tradition or to hail the past. When farming is done in contradiction to the nature of the land, it gives rise to many complications. It is results in water scarcity. It leads to digging up bore wells, which in turn bring down the ground water level. In such a scenario, a farming method that is in line with the landscape becomes essential. He presents Integrated Farming as a viable solution. When eco-villages are formed with individual or collective integrated farms, it creates the opportunity for experts from various domains to work together. The farms would be productive throughout the year.
Paamayan is giving shape to a eco-village near Thenkasi, where 103 friends have bought 110 acres of land. The administration of this farm is done by a collective. Various small scale value-added businesses have been started. Agro-ponds have been dug up. The first Pongal celebrations were held this year. He said, a movement to promote integrated farms should be formed to move towards a self-reliant and sustainable way of life. Only then would we see a world filled with peace and prosperity.
Ramasubramanian, who spoke next, runs a voluntary organisation, Samanvaya. He commenced his speech reminding us of the farmers’ struggle ongoing in Delhi which was into its 76th day. Over 200 protestors had died. Yet, the movement was peaceful, which cannot be seen anywhere else. He offered a Sikh prayer for them. Ram raised the question, why a scholar like Paamayan is not made the vice-chancellor of our universities. He shared an anecdote about a farmer who preferred happiness and liberty he got through native seeds over the promised higher revenues from hybrid seeds. In the the last 15-20 years, we have seen a transformational change among the people. Today we know organic food is healthy. Chemicals are bad. GM is not healthy. This shift has not happened due to government policies. It has transpired entirely due to people’s movements. Three major parties in Tamil Nadu have separate wings for environmental issues. Only people’s movements have pushed this agenda. Ram raised three main issues. First, in our education system, a vast amount of traditional knowledge has been ignored and set aside. It is not talked about in any universities. Knowledge of the people is not recognised. Organic farming is today not offered as a course in Agricultural Universities. There has been a failure to mainstream this knowledge and integrate this knowledge with policy making. Till date, in spite of Ram himself being part of committees to draft an organic farming policy, there is no such policy in Tamil Nadu. Secondly, we have retained the colonial governance structure. Currently there is a tendency to increase centralisation. Thirdly, markets are unfairly organized against people movements. Model villages came up in India as early as 1952. But they did not succeed in a big way as they got stuck in reaching out to the market. In order to counter this, we have to create regional, local markets. Ram has also been invited to offer a Green economy course in a college in Chennai.
Ram also mentioned that this year is the centenary year of the Gandhian Historian, Dharampal. To commemorate his centenary, a website, dharampal.net , has been created with writings of Dharampal.
The next speaker, Balasubramaniam Muthusamy, is the author of the acclaimed book, ‘Indraiya Gandhikal’ (The Gandhis of Today). He is the CEO of a company in Tanzania. He presents the model of companies like Amul and Aravind Hospitals which are based on the Gandhian economic principles and have met commercial success as the way forward. He explored the possibility of a cooperative movement in the farm sector. The Anand Milk Union was started in 1946 with the involvement of Vallabhai Patel, Morarji Desai and Tribuvandas Patel, and later grew to be a giant organisation under the leadership of Varghese Kurien. 12.5 million milk producers in 22 states are part of the milk cooperative movement. 70% of the prices paid by the consumers reaches the milk producer. In the US, this ratio is only 30%. Amul, the largest cooperative, earns 7 billion USD in a year. 3.5 million milk producers are benefitted. Similarly, when oilseeds were imported from foreign countries, there was an attempt to change this situation under the leadership of Sam Pitroda. The National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) was handed the responsibility for this. A cooperative for oilseeds was formed. This operation, named Operation Golden Flow, strived to increase the production of cooking oil in India and achieve self-sufficiency. Brand Tara was created to be at the core of this operation. Production increased. Imports were reduced. In four years, Indian reached self-sufficiency in cooking oil. Tara became the biggest brand. But later, after 1981, the import was opened up to satisfy WTO norms, and there was a decline again. Producer welfare was sacrificed for the sake of consumer welfare. Currently the market for cooking oil is with large private corporations. Farmers cannot survive against their giant strength. J.C.Kumarappa has spoken about this power imbalance. A trader with the same amount of money as a farmer will have more power than the farmer. In India, the milk economy is much larger than the food grain economy. The entire supply chain is in the control of the milk producers. There are no middlemen. Cooperatives can be the core of Indian farming as well. If farmers produce and market food grains, meat, solar power along with milk as part of a cooperative, they will be able to earn higher incomes, says Balasubramaniam.
The final speaker of the day was Dr.Shobana Nelasco, an expert in developmental economics. She is a professor with Kamaraj University. In India the decision making authority rests with a small minority; they never consult the 70% people dependent on agriculture, said Dr.Shobana. She asserted, we need a revolution to change this situation. Those who are not connected with farming draft the farm laws. Wrong people are bestowed with awards and honours. The government, instead of giving essential items to the people, is busy distributing liquor through TASMAC. The elders have to give way to the young in decision making. Farming has to be moved to the state list from the concurrent list. Universal Basic Income should be given to everyone. Each of us should become an activist and take part in politics, said Shobana.
Later, Professor Pazhanithurai summarised the speeches delivered on this day and anchored a discussion with the panelists. Centralized way of managing agriculture won’t solve problems – it helps only the market, he said. Earlier there used to be corruption in the implementation of policies but now, we are seeing corruption in the drafting of policies. We have to think about what kind of policy needed for each state and within each state. The markets have captured political parties and are dictating the policies. We have to explore how can we influence policy makers. It can be done only by influencing political parties. He also cited the surmise of Aravind Veeramani that the state has failed miserably while the market also has failed in the context of poor; we have to build people’s institutions with small entrepreneurs. Further he cited Raghuram Rajan who has said that the institutions in India have failed. Communities have to assert themselves through a political process. The discourse of giving benefits to people has to be discontinued. We need to give them Employment, empowerment and entitlement. Dr.Pazhanithurai concluded with a message of hope. He said to see the number of youth who have got into organic agriculture after the revolution by Nammazhwar gives hope.
Day 3 – Jegannathan Memorial Lectures
On the final day of the conference, the Sarvodaya Day, the Buddhist monks who had come from the World Peace Temple at Sankarankoil led a peace march.
The veteran Sarvodaya leader, K.M.Natarajan, presided over the meeting and welcomed the gathering. He shared many inspiring incidents from the life of Jegannathan. Jegannathan was involved in Satyagraha right from his school days. Later he setup a hostel for college students in the name of Gokulam. He helped form the Textile Workers Union. He was more interested in starting the Farmers Union and was instrumental in starting one near Mayavaram. He enrolled members from the tea estates of Mancholai in Ambasamudram. He was at the forefront of various land movements. When J.C.Kumarappa tried to come to the protests Jegannathan had organized in Tirunelveli, landlords of that area wrote to the then Home Minister Vallabbhai Patel that Kumarappa was a Communist in Khadi clothes. Jegannathan organized a movement against expelling peasants from their lands in Kallankudi. At Vilampatti, he fought against misusing the temple lands. Valivalam Desikar was occupying 390 acres of temple land and Jegannathan launched a struggle against that. 4000 acres of land at Vadapaathimangalam belonging to the Sugarcane Corporation was lying unused and he fought many a battle against it. At the Constructive Workers’ Home, workshops for students and for training people of khadi were held. Natarajan had just completed his 10th Standard when he attended one such workshop facilitated by J.C.Kumarappa. Jegannathan was greatly influenced by what Kumarappa said when he was the Chairman of the Agrarian Reforms Committee, that ‘Land should belong to those who till the land’. When he was lodged in the Tanjore Prison, the idea in his mind firmed up that the land should belong to those who work on the land; it was the only way to end untouchability. It was as extension of this that he actively took part in the Bhoodan movement. He married Krishnammal in the space opposite to the Gandhigram Trust Office. G.Ramachandran, Kumarappa, Keithan and others were there. Keithan presented them both with a large khadi garland, which he put jointly over their necks. Kumarappa blessed Jegannathan with a friendly slap on his back. They gathered 25000 people and took a yatra to Madurai pressing their demands regarding land. They have given over 15000 acres of land to Harijan families. Though many political parties commemorate the Anniversary of the killings in Kizhvenmani, if one talks to the people, they take only the names of this couple. They have given 1 acre of land to all of them. Krishnammal has taught the long and difficult Tiruvarutpa Agaval to the village women. They put the women in the forefront of the satyagraha against prawn farms. 20000-25000 people would assemble by themselves. Their legal victory was celebrated in foreign countries too. Jegannathan was always engaged in work – students’ work, farmers’ work, industrial workers’ work, tribal work, work related to economic equality. He was always engaged in struggles and constructive work. Even when he appears in his dreams now, Natarajan said, Jegannathan is calling him forth to join a yatra. Natarajan shared many such rare experiences and expressed his delight in celebrating the anniversary of this great personality.
The first special lecture was delivered by Thiru. Krishnamoorthy of Vivekanda Kendra, Kanyakumari. He spoke about the ‘Women’s role in social transformation’ in the light of Amma Krishnammal’s life and work. He asserted that India will show the way to the world. Women will lead the way. Women have to unite. They can stand up to evil saying, we shall not fear, we shall not flee, we shall not attack. During the Chipko movement, women hugged the trees to save them. Now that deforestation is going on unbridled, there are landslides and floods in Uttarakhand. Only women can protect the environment. They have to fight to secure their due social status. They have to adhere to the lasting values of life and not the ‘use and throw’ values. They have to give importance to the traditional knowledge too. People like Laurie Baker used the traditional knowledge effectively in architecture. Women have to behave with compassion and empathy. They have to determined. They have to learn these from Krishnammal, spoke Krishnamoorthy, charting out a path for women.
The next special lecture was delivered by Dr.Vinoo Aram of Shanthi Ashram, Coimbatore. She spoke on the theme of ‘Creating a Social Safety net with Children during the COVID 19 Pandemic’. Dr. Vinoo observed that way back in 1948, it was decided to celebrate the Sarvodaya Day every year. The need for us to gather on Sarvodaya Day still remains. 3 generations have come together as a family on this day. Human emotions come out when you are isolated. It is one of the most important impacts of pandemic. This is the time for us to reflect and not just critique. Modern India or the modern world have never come to a standstill like this. The Climate Change activists have always presented this scenario – that the variables are changing and would lead to the outbreak of a disease. We were not prepared to face such a pandemic. Poverty, malnutrition and unequal distribution of resources had made us vulnerable to a pandemic. We have to create a social safety net. We shouldn’t be spending too much time analysing and too little time acting upon it and vice versa. Shanthi Ashram prioritised vulnerable children, families, single women, and people with previous illnesses. The continuous link they had with the community is an asset in a crisis. We have to provide high quality solutions for the poor. We need to present Gandhian thoughts to the young people with authenticity. Such shocks and displacement will occur more frequently. We have to be prepared to face such crises in future was the proactive message of Dr.Vinoo.
Jegannathanji Memorial Oration was delivered by P.V. Rajagopal of Ekta Parishad. He said, in today’s world, success is measured by money or power. Values like sacrifice and dedication are disappearing. Meanings of words are disappearing or distorted. For instance, democracy is not just about fighting and winning elections. Politics is not just about securing power. Reintroducing these words to the youth with the right values they represent is important. P.V.Rajagopal made four important points. First, he talked about modelling leadership. It is important for us to model leadership for the younger generation. What we are witnessing today in Russia, America, Turkey and Brazil are not the right models of leadership. He asked, where is the model Gandhi was trying to present. Jegannathan and Krishnammal demonstrated model leadership. They always used to think of the last person. We have to introduce model leaders like Jegannathan and Krishnammal to the young generation. The young are not interested in speeches. They want to see what do you mean by leadership and they want it to be demonstrated . We have to show them what it means to be listening, caring ,loving and sharing. Amma continues to inspire with those qualities. Secondly, we have to take people to a higher level of consciousness. Leadership based on hate speeches cannot be accepted by the entire nation or the world. It restricts itself to narrower groups based on caste, language, religion. The world is also facing a crisis of leadership. From Armenia to America the same problem exists. The current leaders exhibit no capacity to be national or global leaders. They only create differences and hate. This cannot take India far. We have to understand leadership presented by Gandhi, JP, Vinoba and Jegannathan. Thirdly, the Sarvodaya movement has to find answers to the problems faced by the country. Rajagopal recollected seeing Jagannathan bringing a larger agenda for the country. With respect to Prawn cultivation – people never thought it was a serious problem. He brought it up to a very high level.
When the Supreme Court passed an order to shut down the prawn farms, people in England were also celebrating because it was affecting millions across the world. As per the Oxfam study, 10% of global population holds 77% wealth; the top 1% holds 51% of the wealth and the bottom 60% hold only 7% of the wealth. The distribution of land and resources equally among people is important. Jegannathan and Krishnammal gave leadership to these issues. In Brazil there is this idea of a slogan based history. They observing that slogans are changing but situation is not changing. In India also, it is the same. Fourthly, there are four ways to solve the land problem. i) Retrieval of lost land. Powerful people, forest department have occupied land. It has to be retrieved. ii) Regularisation of land – poor people are sitting on a piece of land but have no title. iii) Resolve dispute of land – 60% of cases in India are related to land. iv) Redistribution of land.
In 2012, the Agra agreement between the government and the farmers was made possible by the march organized by Ekta Parishad. One lakh people walked from Madhya Pradesh for 1 month. Changes were brought to the oppressive British era Rehabilitation and resettlement Act. Modi government brought ordinances to subvert it but had to withdraw them due to mass protests. But the act is still not fully implemented.
Working with people at the bottom is important. But we have to work at the top also to bring about policy changes. When Covid came, Rajagopal said he hoped we will revisit our development model. This is not sustainable. It will destroy the planet in 10 years. But the revisiting didn’t happen. We are accelerating the model that has already failed. It is a tragedy. Therefore we have to inspire, continue to inspire; stay with the poor, were the inspiring messages given by P.V.Rajagopal.
This year’s Jegannathan Memorial Sarvodaya Awards were conferred on K.M.Natarajan and Vinoo Aram. Along with them, the award was presented to K.Selvaraj, a young man who has been involved in village reconstruction and strengthening of gram sabhas; and K.P.Marikumar who runs the Spark Academy to train students from poor families and also runs a home for abandoned dogs.
Finally, Krishnammal Amma, politely asked, “Can I speak for five minutes?” and went on to deliver an inspiring little speech in her usual inimitable style. “I shall stand and talk; I have to tell it all quickly,” she said. “I am not going anywhere now. I keep lying down at home. But there are some thoughts that keep occupying my mind. It has been 75 years since we won independence. But when I think of this country, I am reminded of a song by Ayya, Vallalar Ramalingam:
There is nothing more than a rag to wear;
There is no way that I can find to eat
There is not even an old straw mat to sleep
I have no courage to go to the good people
In this world and beg.
Today there are millions of souls distressed that they have no food, no eyes, no straw mat to sleep on. There is no one to go and look at them. I thought at least the Sarvoday family should take care of them…” she said and went on to list some of her experiences. She narrated how she went to the then Chief Minister, M.Karunanidhi, sneaked in to meet him early in the morning, secured his permission to register the land in the name of women and to do the registration free of stamp duties. She is anxious to rebuild the houses destroyed by repeated storms. She wants to meet potential donors and gather funds to start this activity. She quipped, she has a friend who assists her, and says, “Everything will be accomplished.” The friend she was referring to was her favourite poet-philosopher, Vallalar. As Leela, who was compering the day’s program, said, a new motivating force is born every time we see Amma and listen to her speech.