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Adiammal and Mary: Working together for Land and a Life with Dignity

January 2013


For 24 hard long years Adiammal worked as a laborer on a landowner’s farm. She used the word coolie to describe herself and her work – coolie was used derogatorily by the British during the Raj to describe Indian or Chinese menial labor specifically or Indians/Chinese generally. It was back breaking work. And it was seasonal – there were a lot of times when she only ate one meal a day if she was lucky. “I traveled far from my village to other parts of Tamil Nadu (her home state in India),” she told me, “and even to other states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and as far as Maharashtra looking to eke out a living.”  Then one day she met Mary. Since 1994, Mary has been an organizer with the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective (TNWC, a Grassroots International grantee) that works across the state with Dalit (former untouchables) and Adivasi (indigenous) women, most of whom – like Adiammal – are landless laborers. She had previously been an activist on Dalit rights and with her husband Kumaran had started a Race, Culture, and Education group focused on raising awareness among Dalits about their rights and culture.   TNWC has more than 100,000 members organized in various groups: women’s, youth, elders’, unorganized workers’, even men’s. “If we want our men to be supportive, and if we want to achieve equality, we need to involve the men and conscientize them,” Mary told me. She spoke with Adiammal and other women in their village of Minal, near Arakkonam, in Vellore district, telling them that it would be good to get organized and cultivate their own land. Some of the women were already part of a self-help group that TNWC had helped facilitate.   Adiammal and 10 of her neighbors – all landless Dalit women – agreed, and told Mary that they would work with TNWC. TNWC gave them the initial money to lease a three acre plot and negotiated with the landowner on their behalf. They are now already paying back that amount as well as making the monthly rent payments to the landowner.   On one half of the plot, they have fruit trees including mangoes, guavas, bananas, and coconuts.  On the other half they are growing corn, millet (multiple varieties), black gram, beans, chilies, eggplants, tomatoes, radishes, onions, pumpkins, bottle gourds, and watermelons. They only use organic manure obtained from the four cows and two goats they have, and which they make themselves in a mixture they call ganajeevamrutham (people’s nectar of life). They also have chickens and roosters. And they use the birds and animals for milk or eggs, and sometimes meat.   “I now grow my own food. I am very proud of that. I’m also healthier because I’m eating healthy organic food. Not only do I have enough for 3 meals a day, I can sell the surplus in the market” Adiammal said beaming. “Adiammal is a born leader” Mary observed, “and she was elected as the group leader because she was interested and showed leadership.” Adiammal hastened to point out that even though she is the leader they take decisions by consensus in biweekly meetings, but she acknowledged that she represents the group in larger forums such as the annual conference of members that TNWC hosts.  In their meetings and in the TNWC conference they discuss women’s rights, Dalit rights, Adivasi rights, GMOs, food sovereignty, and ways in which to achieve them.   “We are very interested in millet” Mary said, “as climate change and global warming is already affecting rain patterns and crop cycles. And we want to learn more about millet from other groups that TNWC is connected to such as the Deccan Development Society (DDS) in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state.” In fact, Adiammal and some of her colleagues are going to a conference being organized by DDS. DDS is a founder of the Millet Network of India.   The women of TNWC have been engaging in advocacy and are demanding that the state government give five acres of “waste” land to women in groups of neighboring villages for cultivating millets and fruits. “We attend gram panchayat/sabha (local governance structures) meetings and put pressure on our neighbors not to sell or lease their land to the government or industry and private interests that are grabbing agricultural land for monoculture plantations, special economic zones, or other forms of “development” including real estate near bigger urban areas,” Mary said.   “As women, we feel we can do a lot by being members of TNWC. There is strength in numbers and in solidarity. Our self-confidence has increased by leaps and bounds. Otherwise our families and cultures were male dominated. Now, as earners and providers for our families and our children, we feel we are in control,” Adiammal told me. “Feeding, clothing, and educating our children has raised our own social standing.” 


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