The Leadership Review Team

Aruna Roy and the Genesis of Right to Information

The Leadership Review Team

Aruna Roy_Cover_Web

Corruption in India is like a Lernaean Hydra, only with million heads and each of these heads being immortal. A 2010 report from Global Financial Integrity, an American research and advocacy organisation, estimated that during last 60 years, people of India have lost a sum of $213 billion because of leakages in the public expenditure. After adjusting for inflation, it amounts to a loss of $8 billion each year. According to a 2008 study conducted by Transparency International, 40% of India’s adult population has firsthand experience of either paying a bribe or using a connection to get their work done in a government office. In fact, according to the Transparency International, a bribe of Rs. 22,200 crore is paid annually only by the truckers!
If you believe the 2010 India Corruption Study report by CMS India, socio-economically weaker section of the Indian society is the most adversely affected by the corruption that exists in the government machinery. And the worst part of the corruption in India is that it is organised and system driven, thus making it virtually impossible for few honest and upright officials to make a lasting change. In a situation like this, the legislation of Right for Information (RTI) act has become a very potent tool for the people to protect their rights from being infringed by the organised corruption in the government. As many as 250 RTI activists have been killed since the act was passed in 2005, and it is an indicator of the unrest it has created in the corrupt vested interests. After the implementation of the RTI act in 2005, assets of ministers, bureaucrats, and even judges were made public, and scams like Commonwealth Games scam and 2G Spectrum scam were unearthed with the information obtained using RTI.
While there are many individuals and groups whom history books would exalt for winning the right to information for all Indians, they would trace the ground zero for the RTI movement to a nondescript village where a revolution of sorts was led by Magsaysay award winner Aruna Roy.

Unorthodox Aruna

Although she was born in Tamil Brahmin family in 1946, the upbringing of Aruna Roy can be best described as unorthodox. She was passed on the rebel gene responsible for taking a stand and getting counted. Her grandmother would help bathe the lepers in violation of all the existing social norms of her time. Her mother, an equally strong woman chose her husband at the age of 25, also against the conventions of the society she lived in. Continuing this tradition, instead of taking a safe journalism or teaching role considered apt for women, Roy joined the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) and got posted in the North Arcot dstrict in Tamil Nadu, where she witnessed rural India and its poverty for the first time.
In 1970, she married Bunker Roy, whom she met at Delhi University during her post graduation. This was a wedding between two strong and focussed individuals and unorthodox to the core. They agreed to not be financially dependent on each other, not impose their beliefs on each other, and not have children, which could interfere in their resolve to help people in India’s villages.

Toiling in Tilonia

After working as a collector in Pondicherry and as a senior bureaucrat in different departments in New Delhi, Roy had already witnessed the systemic malaise of corruption. Growing up in an egalitarian set up, she also found the feudal ways of politicians and senior bureaucrats highly disconcerting. Above all, what disillusioned her most with the civil services was the fact that in this bureaucratic jungle she was finding it extremely difficult to make a lasting difference to the lives of the people she had vowed to help. She had three options to choose from now: continue working and fighting the system from the inside, turn into a social researcher, or join her husband who had started the barefoot initiative in a small village of Rajasthan called Tilonia. She chose the last option after spending six months in Tilonia and witnessing the trusting relationship Bunker Roy enjoyed with the villagers. She realised that the deferential treatment she gets in the villages as an IAS officer is the biggest hurdle in her grasping their perspective. Soon after she resigned from the IAS and joined Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) to see the people in the village without being put in the sahab (Hindi word for sir) category.
“I went on to spend seven years with SWRC in Tilonia and it was a cathartic experience where I unlearned most of what I had learnt during the Academy of Administration training,” chuckles Roy. Through this experience she understood the social dynamics in rural India, learnt the local dialect, experienced the bureaucratic high-handedness while trying to get simplest of works done from public offices, and above all she grasped the fact that wisdom to solve complex problems of Indian villages resided within them. It was here that she first witnessed how awareness empowers people during a movement started by a dalit (lower caste) woman Naruti when she mobilised her fellow villagers to not accept the government wages during relief work till everyone does not get paid their minimum wages.
As time went by, Roy became more and more convinced for the need to have organised political action, not limited by the traditional party politics, on the ground to help people avail the fruits of development. At the same time, she did not want to accept donations or funding from any government or non-government agency. She wanted to experience what the villagers experienced and help organise them to set things right for themselves. Soon, she found two like-minded people at SWRC in Shankar Singh, who was a Rajasthani rural communication expert, and Nikhil Dey who had come back to India after giving up his studies in United States.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan

While Roy was able to understand the rural India better, she still had not experienced what they experience without any dilution. Inspired by the journey Gandhi took to the hinterlands to understand the India he wanted to liberate, she decided to make a voyage of her own to another village where a support infrastructure did not exist and she could literally live like one the villagers. In 1987, Aruna Roy and her two comrades moved to Devdungari, a village 160 kms away from Tilonia. They shared a small hut which was devoid of water and electricity supply. Devdungari was a drought prone area and like other villagers, Roy and her colleagues would survive on the wages they earned at government sponsored draught relief work. While they observed sexism and caste discrimination in the village, they did not actively fight it in the beginning. They just treated every villager equally irrespective of their caste and switched the gender roles in their hut where Singh and Dey would fetch water like the village women. This got the villagers intrigued. Capitalising on it, the three activists increased the degree of their interaction with them, and soon they were involved in the activities of the village community. Trust was being developed between them and the villagers and soon, they were going to get an opportunity to organise villagers to fight for their rights.
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan

After independence, the government had set up a limit to the land individuals (read: landlords) could hold.  However, some landlords would pay off government officers and continue to own much more land than the law allowed them to. Not so good at agriculture themselves, they would get the peasants to toil on that land and give them half of what they produce. There was one such landlord in the nearby village called Sohangarh who had been extorting money and produce from the villagers for using 25 hectare of forested land. “He was a classic villain,” remembers Roy. When villagers approached Roy, she along with Singh and Dey organised villagers to take on a long fight against the landlord. They kept at it for two years despite being repeatedly threatened with violence by the landlord’s henchmen. Eventually, since the villagers had Roy and her team guiding them about their rights and how to protect them, they got the district collector to accede the land from the landlord. With this success, the confidence level of villagers went up tremendously and they became more aware and upright about their rights. Like Roy, they were now starting to stand up for what they believed in and get counted.
Now Roy had not only understood the perspective of people in rural India, but had also experienced what they experience. Her empathy had transformed into empathic concern and she could clearly see the need for institutionalising the momentum that was created. It was the right time for organising the movement under the aegis of Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) which literally meant organisation empowering labours and farmers.

Jan Sunwai – The Seed for RTI

With this increased awareness, two of the villagers, Mohan and Narayan, while working in government’s Jawahar Rozgar Yojna objected to the fact that they were not being paid minimum wages. “They were being paid Rs.11 by the village headman while the minimum wages was prescribed to be Rs.22,” says Roy. Mohan, Narayan and 12 other villagers refused to accept the lower wages. When Roy and her colleagues asked why the villagers were not being paid the minimum wages, they were told that the villagers did not work and compensation was done in accordance with the work they had done. “That was a strange response. So, we asked them how they record the amount of work done by individuals,” says Roy. That is where the idea of actually checking the documents being maintained came to their mind and they started their agitation and demanded that they be shown bills, vouchers, and the muster rolls for the public work being done. When awareness spreads and people get united, revolutions happen and a revolution of sorts happened in Devdungari. The villagers accessed the records and they found out that money was being siphoned off by enrolling people who did not exist or were dead. On seeing troubled times ahead for them, the village headman and government officers did try to suppress the issue by giving the villager right wages off the record. However, Roy and the villagers saw the power of information and wanted to set an example. They went on a hunger strike and demanded that they be paid right wages on the record and in the process expose the corruption. While the administration tried to curb the movement, even with force, the villagers persisted and eventually prevailed. They were paid their full wages by state government after the central department of rural government intervened. A fight for the ‘right’ to information had truly started.
Jan Sunwai

Jan Sunwai

They started with the panchayats, the village local government body, and demanded transparency and accountability through social audits. After which, through redressal mechanisms, the siphoned off money could be restored. While they still had no legal authority, Roy and her colleagues decided to show the difference these social audits could make by organising their first jan sunwai or public hearing in 1994 by accessing government documents unofficially. People from the village gathered and audited the work being done by the panchayat and the government officers, who resisted initially, but as the demand for social audits gained ground in different villages, many corrupt public representatives and officers returned the money they had taken off. Over the next three years, the demand for accountability from panchayats intensified and spread like wildfire. In July 1997, Rajasthan government had to amend its Panchayati Raj rules.
The MKSS activists, in partnership with the government, were doing social audits and in the first six months alone they had recovered Rs.70 lakh. They had chosen the bridge education program under the sarva siksha abhiyaan (education for all initiative) as a pilot to demonstrate how informed and aware citizens can turn the tables on organised corruption of the system. While Aruna Roy was demanding amendments in the Panchayati Raj rules, the idea of people’s right to demand information from all bodies that have impact on public interest had already taken shape. They were now clearly seeing that there was a need to legislate the right to information and explicitly empowering people to assert their right to know and hold the public servants and the government accountable. “With the slogan ‘jaan-ne ka haq, jeene ka haq’ (translates to right to know, right to live) it was clear that right to information had to be seen as a fundamental right of the citizens. That is the only tool that people have in a democracy to make their government and its machinery accountable,” reminisces Roy.
The battle was won and the movement started by Roy was going to win the war in 2005 with the legislation of Right to Information (RTI) act.


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