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Rakesh Sahai for Asiaweek.

India's Fight to Know

Aruna Roy
Community Leadership
Poor people must be the agents of their own development and
Roy has empowered them to claim what is rightfully theirs by exercising their right to information

To an illiterate farm laborer in India, the right to information might seem about as relevant as, say, the right to ride a bullet train. So why would thousands take part in weeks of energy-sapping protests over such an abstract issue? The short answer: Aruna Roy. The activist showed poor rural folks how information could give them power — to stop corrupt officials from siphoning off precious funds needed to dig wells, for instance, or to demand the pitiful wages that are their due.

Roy, 54, was something of an insider. Having served in Delhi's elite civil service for six years, she learned how bureaucracy operated. Or failed to operate. The rot was so deep, so abhorrent to her sense of justice, she had to quit. "The system just ejects you," she says. That was about 25 years ago. Roy then joined her husband, Bunker, who had set up an agency working on village livelihood projects in the state of Rajasthan. Over time, however, she came to the conclusion that much more was needed to change the lives of rural folks locked in a cycle of degrading poverty. The people had to take political action.

So in 1990, Roy and several activists set up the Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), meaning Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants. Based in an ordinary village called Dev Dungri, the group has achieved results that are anything but. Its leaders built a grassroots movement that has triggered broad debate and a nationwide demand for the public's right to scrutinize official records — a crucial check against arbitrary governance. That's why, Roy says, small actions in her village reverberate in the power centers of Delhi and Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. "Our right to information leads us to the right to govern ourselves."

Rural workers, Roy points out, are easily exploited because of a lack of transparency in India's colonial-style administration. This culture of secrecy fosters corruption which has led, for instance, to village officials paying contractors for non-existent work. Her campaign succeeds because it helps people expose these links. Roy's tireless work is recognized this year by a Magsaysay award for community service. In commending the activist, the trustees note Roy's exemplary personal conduct: She is scrupulous in accounting for her own expenditures to colleagues and neighbors in Dev Dungri.

Waging war against vested interests takes plenty of courage and determination. A slight graceful woman (she was trained in classical Indian dance), Roy has plenty of both. More than that, she and the MKSS are politically astute. They were careful in picking their first battle. Roy recalls their target was "a classic villain," a landlord who had grabbed a piece of public land and was trying to intimidate villagers into abandoning the area. It was important to win against him to establish credibility — and they did. He was eventually forced to hand back the land.

The activists' breakthrough strategy really took shape when they examined local records on behalf of an old woman who was denied even the minimum wage set for local projects. After their research, Roy and her co-workers decided to present their data to the villagers rather than butt heads against an indifferent government. They conducted a series of public hearings.

The effect was inciendary. Despite official stonewalling, the activists produced compelling evidence. Payments had been issued for clinics, schools and public toilets that were never built, for workers who were long dead, and worse, for disaster-relief services that never arrived. Villagers around the region began calling for their own social audits to expose corrupt officials. They asked to examine bills, vouchers, progress reports and employment rolls. "It's difficult to describe the excitement and energy that the hearings unleashed in 1994-95," says Roy.

Jockin Arputham: International Understanding
Atmakusumah Astraatmadja:
Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communications Arts
Liang Congjie: Public Service
Jesse M. Robredo:
Government Service
Where officials refused to open their books, the MKSS staged dharnas or sit-ins to demand more information. These climaxed in a 52-day protest to pressure the Rajasthan government to make public its development-fund records. Since then, the national government has pledged to introduce a comprehensive national information law. And both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states recently adopted right-to-information policies. Not that Roy is under any illusions of victory: "It's just the beginning of a hard struggle." But she's certainly ready for the long haul.

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