- As a junior officer in India’s prestigious Administrative Service, she was exposed to her country’s diverse, poverty-stricken village world.
- She joined the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC), a voluntary agency led by her husband and engaged in village-level development projects on health, education, gender, and livelihood.
- Roy and some fellow activists formed Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS, Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants), assisting villagers to assert themselves against the local power structure.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her empowering Indian villagers to claim what is rightfully theirs by upholding and exercising the people’s right to information.”
We are familiar with corruption in high places. But what about corruption in low places? For example, how much of the development aid earmarked for Asia’s rural poor every year actually reaches the poor? Huge sums are involved. In India, the government spends some $200 million annually for rural assistance in the state of Rajasthan alone. This is where ARUNA ROY and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS, Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants) have been helping poor villagers find out where the money goes. They do so by asserting the people’s right to a single powerful weapon: information.
As a junior officer in India’s prestigious Administrative Service, ARUNA ROY was exposed to her country’s diverse, poverty-stricken village world. She learned that she could not easily penetrate it, or change its ways, as an elite official. After seven years, she resigned from the Service and in 1974 moved to Rajasthan. There she joined the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC), a voluntary agency led by her husband and engaged in village-level development projects on health, education, gender, and livelihood. Her experience at SWRC convinced her that poor people must be the agents of their own economic and social improvement and, moreover, that political action is fundamental to their success.
With this in mind, ROY and some fellow activists formed MKSS in 1990. Headquartered in the village of Devdungri, Rajasthan, their group accepted no external funds and spurned the trappings of prosperous NGOs. Living as the poor lived and eating as the poor ate, ROY and her comrades began assisting villagers to assert themselves against the local power structure.
Using traditional forms of protest such as hunger strikes and sit-ins, MKSS-led villagers insisted that local people hired for state projects be paid the legal minimum wage. They forced a land-grabbing feudal lord to return encroached-upon properties to the entitled poor. Most provocatively, they held open-air public hearings at which official records of state development projects were exposed to the scrutiny of the intended beneficiaries.
Shocking revelations followed: of toilets, schoolhouses, and health clinics recorded as paid for but never constructed; of improvements to wells, irrigation canals, and roads that remained noticeably unimproved; of famine and drought relief services never rendered; and of wages paid to workers who had been dead for years. Of the many development projects pursued by MKSS in Rajasthan, said one member, “not one has come out clean.” Such revelations embarrassed culpable officials and led to apologies and investigations and even to the return of stolen funds.
Information was the key to every success: bills, vouchers, employment rolls. People have the right to audit their leaders, MKSS said. Thus, its campaign of public hearings also became a campaign for transparency in government. “Our money, our records,” chanted villagers.
But officials were loathe to open their books. This prompted ROY and MKSS to launch a series of rallies culminating in a fifty-three-day protest in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, to compel the state to make its development-fund records public. The movement soon took on India-wide dimensions as the media and prominent intellectuals and political reformers joined in. As a result, right-to-information laws have now been passed in Rajasthan and three other states. A comprehensive national law is pending before the Government of India.
ROY and her colleagues practice the transparency they preach, accounting scrupulously for their own expenditures to rural neighbors. At fifty-four, ROY remains driven. If an issue or a situation disturbs her, she says, “I am not comfortable until I do something about it.”
In electing ARUNA ROY to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her empowering Indian villagers to claim what is rightfully theirs by upholding and exercising the people’s right to information.
It is a great honor to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award. Though I have been singled out to receive the award, it in fact belongs to the many women and men with whom I have had the good fortune to share struggles and emerging visions for a better world. No individual, however endowed, can bring about social change on their own. Community work is a collective exercise, and the greatest potential and challenge of the human condition is to work together to realize dreams far beyond the barriers of individual limitations. It is my conviction that this is true for the work we do, the ideas we generate, as well as the leadership we create.
One of the colossal tragedies that we face today is that in a world of plenty, we still have countless people who live in conditions of abject poverty and deprivation. Can we create conditions where our fellow citizens have an equal opportunity to contribute not just their labor, but also their knowledge, understanding and intelligent perception of change? Can we effectively challenge the established norms that limit the contribution of human beings because of hierarchies of exclusion? Are we willing to critically examine our own roles in perpetuating systems of exploitation through our actions and our silences? Do we not have equal rights to benefit from the common heritage of our planet? Can we work out the modes that will allow us to move towards an order based on the principles of justice and equality? Who will do so? How will we do it?
I do not think any of us doubt the need to increase our levels of participation and involvement in issues of common interest. The universal attraction of democratic principles is that sovereignty rests with the people. But democracy is meaningful only when its specifics are worked out.
The principles of democracy are universal. But for ordinary people, it is the practice of democracy that defines the principles. The socio-political circumstances of Asian countries like India, provide the opportunity to make democracy a vehicle of change, in which the collective wisdom of people is given the sanctity it deserves. Democratic struggle becomes both an end and a means to a more participatory form of governance. It is in this attempt to change from subjects to being the actual masters that the campaign for the people’s right to information took root in rural Rajasthan. Their collective understanding and contribution has changed the perspective of an academic and esoteric issue into a potent tool and principle of living.
It has been a process that has illustrated the potential of relatively small groups of people working together to wage an ethical struggle against far more powerful adversaries.
I feel honored most of all because I see this award as a recognition of those processes. The struggle in Rajasthan has not only drawn strength from community participation, but also from the understanding that communities, acting together to provide leadership, have greater resilience, energy and creativity than any individual.
I come here today to accept this award, on behalf of the organizations I work with in Rajasthan and the many others in India who have energized this ongoing struggle. The cash prize will go to a trust recently set up to support individuals and organizations engaged in similar democratic struggles.
I would like to thank the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation for providing a platform with which to share our perceptions. I also take the opportunity to urge the Foundation to include the eligibility of collectives and organizations in the category of Community Leadership. For it is to the collectives of ordinary people, the issues and processes they have fought for, and the greatness of their human spirit that this recognition truly belongs.
Unorthodox is probably the best way to describe Aruna Roy, her lineage, and the choices she has made in her life.
Her maternal grandparents were both Brahmins from south India but they belonged to different subcastes; she was an Iyer, he an Iyengar. In 1918, they broke the rules of the Indian caste system by marrying. Her grandmother, among whose ancestors were a junior civil servant in the British government and a barrister in the British court, completed high school (Senior Cambridge). She was, Aruna says, a fearless woman who, in her early twenties, worked with leprosy patients. Overriding the fear of relatives, she insisted on taking her own children along on those visits and then washed them thoroughly with disinfectant before they returned home. She also visited the poor in the slums and was active in women’s groups. In later years, she became an honorary magistrate and remained active into her old age. Her husband, Aruna’s maternal grandfather, was an engineer with a strong social conscience. The author of two textbooks, he insisted on printing and selling them himself so that poor students could afford them. Against the dictates of their caste, the couple taught their children not to believe in orthodoxy. They recognized no class and no religion, and treated with equal hospitality everyone who came to their home. “There was never any special food that couldn’t be given to others,” Aruna recalls.
They sent their eldest child, Hema-Aruna’s mother, to Christian schools. Hema was a brilliant and well-rounded student. She excelled in mathematics and physics as well as sports; studied the classical language Sanskrit; played the veena, a South Indian classical instrument; and read Indian folklore and Sanskrit fables but also Greek and Latin stories. Hema waited until she was twenty-five to marry, quite late by Indian standards. She chose for her husband ED (Elupai Doraiswami) Jayaram, a lawyer who hailed from a family of lawyers. Indeed, Jayaram’s father and uncle had studied law in England. After returning home, his uncle had organized the first strike of rickshaw pullers in Chennai (then Madras).
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