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Politics for people

By Rashme Sehgal

Socio-political activist Aruna Roy explains why development workers in NGOs are quite the opposite of people’s movements, which are the real harbingers of change in India, working to create more democratic spaces in the country

Aruna Roy is a political and social activist. She served as a civil servant in the Indian Administrative Service from 1968-1974, before resigning to become a social activist working to empower villagers in Rajasthan. She heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana, which she founded in 1990, and which worked towards the successful enactment of the Rajasthan Right to Information Act, precursor of several state Acts and then the national legislation on RTI in 2005.  

In 2000, Roy was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. In 2005, she was amongst the 1,000 women from 150 countries nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

What does the phrase ‘civil society’ mean to you?

Civil society is a very ambiguous phrase. The people I work with are seen as workers, peasants and landless labourers who have no role in civil society. Upendra Baxi’s phrase applies to this segment of society -- they are not citizens but subjects of India. It is with these people that I have spent my entire life. My intellectual abilities may have been acquired from studying in a college, but the rights and wrongs of politics have been learnt through my interactions with these people.

Would you subscribe to the perception that civil society is acquiring more and more clout?

One needs to understand these phrases from the point of view of an average villager. Civil society will never put this question before a villager even though he may have done a great deal of work. I do not think people ever think about the phenomenal amount of work these people have done. We are representatives of these people because we have opted to live with them. We understand their politics and that is much more than can be said about civil society at large. 

Can you elaborate on this point?

A village woman called Sushila defined RTI in the most succinct manner possible. When we went on a 40-day strike in Beerawar, there were hundreds of our supporters demanding the suo moto right to the disclosure of all public records. It was at this time that Sushila said: “If I give Rs 10 to my son and send him to the market to do some shopping then when he returns surely I have every right to ask him to give me hisaab. Hamara paisa, hamara hisaab. Why should I not do the same with the government?” This assertion was supported by people across all sections of society. We had the support, in 1996, of V P Singh and a whole host of other politicians. 

I must clarify that I am not part of an NGO movement. I’m part of a people’s movement. The Narmada Bachao Andolan, the fish workers, the construction workers agitation for rights can all be described as people’s movements. By contrast, NGOs take money to do development work. We do not operate like that. 

I would describe myself as a socio-political activist.

But both NGOs and people’s movements have helped ensure a more equitable paradigm of development.

These (NGOs and socio-political activism) are two separate and distinct factions. Sometimes these two groups may come together for a particular purpose, but they follow two distinctly opposite processes. We do not take part in specific development issues. Nor can we be described as purely politically motivated activists. In the final analysis, just how much work have trade unions done?

Let me illustrate this with an example. Take the whole campaign to end female foeticide. A campaign is very different from a movement. My involvement is with movements. The RTI has been a movement; the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) has also been a movement. These are movements to create a more democratic space in our society.

Are you saying that there has been an intensification of people’s movements across the country?

Yes indeed. It is because of the widespread movement for more democracy that we succeeded in the setting aside of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). In the same way, it was because of pressure from the people that we were able to get the government to introduce the NREGA. 

All these have involved huge movements where the issues have gone beyond individual sectors. Civil society played a limited role in helping us get the requisite legislation. This included the participation of people in government, members of political parties in their personal capacity, as well as an increasing understanding of the role of electoral politics and of panchayats.

That may well be, but has RTI remained a people’s movement or has it become a largely urban-based phenomenon?

I think this is one more sweeping generalisation being made against RTI. Activist Shekhar Singh has been conducting a major evaluation of the whole RTI Act and how it is being used. Thousands of RTI applications are being filed at the public distribution system (PDS) level and do not reach the commission. What comes to the commission is only the tip of the iceberg. To cite some examples, the issue of non-construction of roads, the cleaning of village tanks, or the issue of muster rolls in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan are not going to be reflected in the central commission. These are dealt with at the public information officer (PIO) level. We have more than 300 applications at the PDS level. When these are filed, the people at that level get scared and generally end up providing the requisite information.

Has this helped promote more transparent and equitable governance?

Well, I will answer this question by emphasising three issues. The first is that ordinary people must be allowed to exercise their sovereignty. Secondly, they must be given the right to intervene and ask for transparency of accounts, of service delivery mechanisms, and ensure greater sharing of information with the beneficiary. The third point I must emphasise is that there has been a change in the nature of governance. People today can talk to those who govern them. Earlier, they would ask for an explanation but would get no reply. Today they are bound to get a response. 

We are fighting to end the arbitrary use of power, whether it is by fighting on behalf of victims of genocide, where we went in for RTI against the paramilitary forces, or by ensuring that SEZs (special economic zones) were thrown out of Goa, or, to cite the example of Greenpeace activists, putting pressure on the government to prevent the sale of genetically modified seeds. 

A lot of questions have been asked about how the NREGS still remains largely unaccountable.

I do not agree with this criticism at all. The NREGS is one scheme where every single transaction can be traced. The amount of money being given to every single family across the country can be found out; this is not being done in any other government department.

Activists have been highlighting the shortcomings of the NREGS, however.

They are doing this because it is obvious they have never lived in a village. Nobody wants to step out and see how it is working at the grassroots level. Let me cite the example of a woman who belongs to the lowest caste -- a Kanjar -- who used to beg for money to survive and was not allowed to work. Someone like her was not allowed to own land either. For the first time in her life, she did not have to beg for food. Eleven lakh people in the country who were carrying excreta have now been given dignity of work. For them it has been a quantum leap. 

There used to be a lot of corruption in the past. We never knew what went in and what went out. Today we can trace it. People are investigating every case of fraud and all such cases are being unearthed. I would like to emphasise that this is the first honest programme that has been provided at the ground level. We accept that the delivery mechanism can be corrupt, but the public is in a position to find out. You tell us what can be a greater partnership than this. 

What is happening in the NREGS are small bits of corruption in comparison to the massive corruption in our banks and so on. It is for this reason that I believe that the government must be very circumspect when it decides to enter into any partnership with the private sector. We can hold government responsible but that is not true with a private partner.

What would you describe as your biggest achievement?

I have struggled hard all my life to see that my brother does not get hurt. This paradigm has allowed me to work with issues of paramount importance. 

Would you say there has been a phenomenal change?

Yes, the public is far smarter than people had imagined them to be. They know how they are being used and people cannot take them for a ride anymore. Today, there is a tremendous shortage of jobs. Today, the average worker is faced with an alternative and that is because the NREGS provides them with a safety net. People in urban India do not realise this. The economic meltdown has affected urban, not rural India. The markets in rural India are prospering. People have surplus money and are going to the markets to shop. It is the jewellers who are raking in the largest profits! 

Infochange News & Features, November 2009