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Sahai for Asiaweek.
Fight to Know
By SANJAY KAPOOR Delhi
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.
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
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.
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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