PHANSA, INDIA -- Workers at this beach-side farm cannot see the canopy of coconut trees, or the nearby ponds where herons feed, or the ocean inlet 100 yards away where local villagers snare fish in the morning tide the way their ancestors had done for generations.

But in the dairy barn, the mango groves, the rice paddies and the green fields of okra, where workers occasionally bob up as they crawl down the rows, the men are driven by a shared dream: to own their own farm and make a decent living from the soil even though they are blind.

"When I finish here, I want to own my own farm," said Dhirabhai, one of the 40 sightless men at the Tata Agricultural and Rural Training Center for the Blind, a 250-acre working farm in the western coastal state of Gujarat.

Weeding a field of okra, his hands gently caressing the stems and leaves, his fingers scanning the ground with a touch so light he could be tickling the soil, Dhirabhai, 28, said he gradually lost his sight three years ago and left his village in despair. Now, when his training is finished, he hopes the center can do for him what it has done for dozens of other graduates -- send him home to a parcel of land of his own. It is the unfulfilled dream of millions of landless, lower-caste families who live in the feudal communities of rural India.

"These families are from the very lowest strata, and the blind boys are the most neglected members of the family, given poor food and no clothes," said J.N. Bhuta, secretary of the training center. "But once he gets land and training and supplies -- up to 30,000 rupees {almost $1,000} -- he becomes the most popular man in the family and a prestigious VIP in the village." Often, Bhuta said, the status of the blind men is so improved that they marry women who can see.

The trainees, aged 15 to 35, come from all corners of India to this secluded stretch of seashore 130 miles north of Bombay. They train at the center for about two years and normally return to their home villages, where they are more likely to be accepted as blind landowners and where they have family to assist them.

The center pays for a variety of supplies and improvements -- perhaps building some huts, drilling a well, providing a pair of bullocks and a cart -- and asks the state government to donate land. Many states have complied with two-acre parcels and other subsidies, although a land gift is not always possible.

The center began arranging land gifts about 12 years ago, Bhuta said, after a survey of graduates revealed that the biggest problem was "if we gave them something in-kind, it was taken away. You can take away a buffalo, but you can't take away the land if it's in the boy's name."

The center, which opened in 1960 and has a staff of 25, graduates about 20 blind men a year. They learn to plant, till, weed and water. They learn to read and write in Braille, to cook and clean for themselves, and they are taught rural crafts such as basket weaving and broom making.

The farm was purchased through a trust of the Tata family, an Indian dynasty that has put huge portions of its wealth into philanthropic projects. Two 30-acre ponds were created on the site, housing and other buildings constructed and thousands of coconut, mango, teak and fruit trees planted. About two-thirds of the property is a commercial farm that puts its profits into running the training school and resettling the blind farmers.

One of the biggest challenges, Bhuta said, is finding blind men to train at the farm. Officials discovered about 15 years ago that students from the cities almost never relocated to villages, so the center now only accepts men from rural areas. Even then, many families are reluctant to send their blind relatives away with strangers, fearing that they would be taken to the city and exploited as professional beggars -- one of the biggest scams in India.

"We sometimes send a blind man in for recruitment, and once he shows his ability to work, people are very interested," Bhuta said.

When they first arrive at the farm, most of the men are docile and uncommunicative, according to Suresh Suratwala, who works for the trust that manages the center. But they are taught how to find their way around the farm, how to clean themselves and how to find their spot in the dining hall by feeling for markers on the floor with their bare feet.

They scramble about the farm on their daily chores, often walking arm-in-arm and hands-on-shoulders in human chains that find comfort and safety in companionship.

One recent afternoon the students sat on mats in neat rows under trees and learned how to start a stove and make tea. A partially blind instructor guided another student's fingers, showing how to weave a broom.

"I was sick with fever and lost my eyes when I was nine," said Shantwen Vasawe, 32, who graduated from the program six years ago and stayed on at the center to teach Braille and music. "Then I lost my mother, and my five stepbrothers drove me out so they could get a bigger share of the family's land."

"I like the warm atmosphere here," he said. "It's isolated, but it's safe, sheltered and secure." A few years ago, he married a woman with club feet, and they have a healthy 3-year-old daughter, Jayashri. Now, he said, "I'm able to help other blind people, and I'm proud because I'm earning my own bread by working."

In the fields, the men start on community plots, then move to small group parcels for more individualized training, and finally, a few months before graduation, they are given a half-acre to cultivate on their own.

The farm also has a 100-cow dairy farm that the men tend in weekly shifts. "It gives me income and helps me maintain myself," said Badriprasad Lalchand Karnani, who travels 45 minutes by bus daily, then navigates on foot with a cane to deliver 24 gallons of milk to a factory. "I want to live my life with self-respect and not be a burden on others."