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You are listening to Uncommon Women on Red podcast, Hammurabi's Hamida Hyssop, this powerful slogan illustrates how Indians began to hold governments accountable and how they did so is the story of both Aruna Roy and a remarkable organization she helped found called the Marzook essentially SANGAR 10 or murkiest after years of struggle in rural Rajasthan. They helped usher in a most vital piece of legislation passed by independent India. The Right to Information Act came into effect on 12 October 2005, and since then, more than three crore or 30 million RTI applications have been filed.
As the media says the right to know is the right to live. Hello and welcome to Uncommon Women.
I am your host, Gayatri Runga Trisha and I bring you inspiring stories of women breaking barriers to make the world a better place. Just society but love. Later here today, I am honored to have with us one of India's most significant activists, Aruna Roy. To be a voice for the voiceless is not easy. You have to go up against big, powerful interests, whether it's the government or industry lobbies. Oppression is a joke that holds down so many of our fellow citizens.
Yet few of us fight back. Aruna Roy was different from a young age. She was aware of the discrimination permeating Indian society.
She has spent her entire life selflessly working for the people of India, Tribalist Dalitz, the landless and the poorest of the poor, of course, but also people like you and me, urban Indians, who often forget that the rights we take for granted exist because someone told for them on our behalf. I have fought long, hard and spoke truth to power to ensure we have the right to information law.
A former officer, she quit the government in nineteen seventy five and dedicated her life to helping the rural poor.
In the nineteen eighties, she moved to a tiny village called Deep Dungaree in someone district in Rajasthan. She lived in a basic mud hut with minimal possessions. Those videos of severe drought and deprivation. Some people eat rootes made out of ground thorns.
After founding the house in nineteen ninety, I spent the final decade of the 20th century mobilizing villages in Rajasthan. The SS held public meetings called Gensen Views to discuss financial fraud in panchayats. They fought for fair wages, set up village run kirana stores for fair pricing, and undertook truck outros Tana's and hunger strikes to pressure the administration into sharing records. Eventually, all of the hard work resulted in the RTI, the first national legislation in which a people's campaign played a tremendous role.
I served as a member of the National Advisory Council, playing a crucial role in the passage of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. She's the recipient of numerous awards.
Time magazine listed her as one hundred most influential people in the world, along with the media as collective.
Aronow has written the book The Story Power to the People, a riveting account of how a group of committed citizens with nothing but their convictions and ideals came together to make our democracy more participatory and accountable.
Iryna is someone who stood up for what she believed and helped create the change we all want to see. Aruna, thank you for coming on the show.
I'm glad. Don't say anything to my girls, my dear. It's a privilege to have you with us. I really wanted to start by asking you about the RTI law and informed citizenry is the foundation of democracy, and it has been said that the right to information was India's second war of independence. Could you explain why the passage of this law was such a milestone and what it means for the people of India? We declared ourselves the sovereign of the nation and we set in place a series of institutions to deliver justice, equality and liberty to us all socio economic and political liberties.
But as time passed, we just gave the independence of the nation from the British did not deliver many essential services, and we remained a very divided society economically and socially. The only thing we really got some kind of equality is got them because they to give us the constitution of the world, because we as women didn't have to fight for the vote. Every citizen was above at the time. They got the right to vote. Today, sovereignty is understood by people.
At that time, sovereignty was a concept. But today the concept is in practice. And you understand that you vote. I vote and we want these people to power and they must deliver as designed and as ordained in the Constitution of India. So if they don't, what do you do and how do you regain the sovereignty of control and accountability? And this is what the reconciliation law has somehow enabled us to do and given us a smile to illustrate Modi, who is now no more with us.
He passed away recently was our board. He was illiterate and he said they want to be on the mudflats, the courtyard of our house, after many demonstrations and strikes with the goal, of course, no, we could not gain any weight, any real change in the formation of the concept of either minimum wages or the work became critically important for us to make sure that our rights were be stated by us, but accepted by the powers that be.
And in that process, he said that unless you bring that information out into the public domain and it's hidden from us, will always be liars and they will be speaking the truth. But we don't know what the truth really is, so the facts must be out. And he articulated it so beautifully and he sang songs about it, which made the whole issue wider in Rajasthan. So common sense interacted with more information that we had perhaps about legalities and rights and constitution and so on.
But it's formed itself into the Zeoli because it's called second order the defendant. They really fought for the rights in reality based on actual circumstances and within the formation of a New England state.
I'd like to understand because I know that this whole movement began with the right for fair wages and the government would promise us a certain amount of wages per day for people. But then, of course, they were not be paid those wages and the records of the work that was being done was not being shared with the people who had done the work with the labor. So that was the genesis, I believe. If you could give us a small example of how records were not being accessed or how the public was not able to see official records.
And that was really the basis of how was of the journey through which I eventually started to happen.
It was quite extraordinary because whenever we went to ask for any information, the entire office just to the right, and then they agreed because they thought it was with a single scrap of paper, their lives would be ruined. It made us even more curious and more determined that those pieces of paper should be brought up. Pretty simple things like labor, very simple things like this of people below the poverty line. They wouldn't share that because they thought that they share those names with us.
We were just simply a very, very simple act of verification and find that those people were not on the list. But all the people on the list were people who didn't deserve to be on the list and raise questions. In a feudal society and in all societies, society's questioning is put down. The act of questioning is very good. It's really important. So what happened with these various questions that we put up to do the government over these? Because we are poor people.
We work mainly on government websites because I just don't run. The government runs many programs and we work on those. Looks like it became an extra tool in our hands to say that you form the law, you implement the law. I do not violate it. So you have to show up. And demand for papers skyrocketed into many kinds of huge protests against sharing it with me. There's more and more sure that those facts have to be out. And transparency was the basis of society, corruption, free society and a society which guaranteed us access to all our rights in the Constitution.
Let's talk about the example of one village where 90 development works were undertaken between nineteen ninety four and two thousand, but thirty eight turned out to be ghost works. That is, I don't think they were actually done and corruption of some 70 lacs was uncovered. This was just one example of what was happening at the panchayat level throughout rural Rajasthan. What was that process of discovery like and what was the people's reaction to this stunning revelation?
Actually, there was a public hearing which followed eight previous public hearings, and those eight hearings had already established a mood in which people call an assembly. They call it a panel of people, eminent people, not associated with the structure of the cases, but to believe in the principles of the Constitution as a kind of panel of judges. And then you invite people to come and testify. So people come actually and testify as to the veracity of a process or to the city of the documents.
So it is in the public domain. And the first one we had was in 1994. And then I would get much later, but then I would give off to the goal. So we had a view at once that I just don't like the information that was passed. We would be able actually to access information. So we tried for a year and we couldn't get the information because a city official was called up dump and said secretly that we with the documents once it was released by the auditors to the Rajasthan High Court.
And so we waited till the state was lifted. And despite the chief ministers guarantee that the information would be given to us, it was only when the state was lifted that we got the information. And once we went into verification, we knew exactly why it was there, that one. And it got a check that was built three times by the irrigation department. But the Punjab Department of the Soil Conservation Department, all three had books, the same chicken.
So when we went to verify, we went to the results and that I did the same check them. But there were three records claiming that they had spent the money. So actually, even granting that money was spent correctly, it was three times the amount actually spent. One junior engineer said that he had dug the well X number of feet. There were so many junior engineers and all of this that say, for instance. Twenty nine feet by which claim.
It should have been twenty nine in the fall, but actually the depth of the SO line so it would is very, very obvious. Then there was a veterinary hospital which was never built, so they made a big hue and cry all the way to the hospital about the budget deficit. The budget said to the vet at that time where all these things quickly started building a first floor and they started bringing up, but they were all furious and went to school and said, well, we are building the hospital on the first floor, which we would have to go upstairs.
So it is then everyone got up and then very adroitly, they brought the board of the Punjab and the vicinity of hospital down. But this is not a veterinary hospital. There were so many such examples of this actually proves the point. Since the law was being framed, they did not want to impose immunity on officials who did not give us information inside that I was mistaken right up to parliament. So the standing committee to argue that we needed a 30 day limitation and a penalty on the official who would not give us the information in 30 days.
And this became law. So that actually contributed to the law. And the three judges who came to the that I mentioning that there were many others that I mentioning the judges that were Justice Patel, a former chief justice of the Punjab. We had just as the debate was in that I just thought previously that was articles and we had to be resolved to actually adopted the RTI as a member of the Supreme Court present at the hearing. So it became clear the relationship between actual experience, the processing of their experiences and the law and legislation that is actually passed must be it can be an imagined or a presupposed condition.
It has to be a real condition. And then you bring in a law like that. It's really effective.
So I want to just unpack what you told us, because there was so much in there. So basically, the chief minister of the state had ordered the junior officials to share the records of the spend that that was supposed to have happened at the panchayat level. The junior officials actually ended up going to court to block sharing that information. And then eventually when the information was shared, you found and everyone who examined the records found that actually those works that had purportedly been under had not been undertaken.
The money had been spent. There was nothing to show for it. And I think that's what we need to emphasize about the RTI Act, is that this is something that a small example in one village in Rajasthan, but that this is this was happening across the country. And this is why when the government was allocating development funds, there's nothing to show for it. So I think the monument of all of this legislation is is being felt as even today as people file RTI applications.
I would like to rewind to your childhood. Was your family socially aware? How did this the seeds of social activism, how would this warning you?
There was no consciousness about fighting anything, but I was brought up to believe that this is how it was the equality. I mean, how could you question equality, whether it was inequality in cost or inequality and gender inequality, economic inequality? They did not matter in the way my parents lived. They lived in a house in which, no matter what or where you came from, you were treated equally. You sat on the same chairs and you had cups of tea from the same cups, and there was no question of any inequality.
So I grew up in my very, very early years without knowing that there were some people who like to keep out of the house, some people inside the house, that God would not allow some people into the kitchen. These were living values for me.
And this was the were into night in Delhi.
I am a daily person, OK, four months old, my father, Delhi, 1942. So it was because of my parents slave they a to the very progressive kind of group, Heidi, that is a philosophical society for which there was to collect data to study art, dancing and music. But this jumping the gun. But my father's family actually were highly influenced by for my great great grandfather had gone to study law. The court came back as socialist and started actually institutionally organizing labor unions to fight for the right to organize the first strike of the handful for big shareholders in Geneva back in the early nineteen hundred and.
My grandmother on my mother's side consciously forecast in many ways and also who's she worked in a leper colony at the time and they were all considered outcasts. My grandfather was a district engineer, so she took my mother and my uncles, all of them, to the Espy's Muslim or to the colectivos was a Christian. And they ate all the food that it was a question of saying, I can't eat this. I can't eat that. My grandmother told my mother and my mother taught us that no matter who or what, the food is placed on the table who accepted graciously and received all the food taboos that exist in India.
And today is such a big hullabaloo about all this. We know that removing the taboo or untouchability is one of the most vital things in India. So all of these I was brought up really to behavioral change, which was always there. And because it was the accepted norm equality and also because institutionally it was created by my grandmother and my other members of my mother's family and my father's side. It was these lawyers who really want to do reform of labor laws.
And so this unionization and making unions and so on.
And of course, all of that was extremely sort of progressive for that era. I mean, we still struggle with these issues today in 2020. But if you rewind to so many decades ago, it must have been so much more acute to the kind of discrimination that people faced. You brought up culture and I wanted to ask you about that. It, of course, is it was a progressive school. And tell us a little bit about what she thought was and also what the experience was like there for you, because I know you spoke to me about a particular incident around cost to actually what happened was that I went to the age of nine, very, very young and actually extremely well known dancer.
He interviewed me. I was awed by the collection. There was a very progressive place in which actually I feel so frustrated, not entertain notions of caste. And they did not entertain notions of equality. And they practiced a new kind of progressive attitude to all kinds of values that were then privileged. But unfortunately, one of the teachers have to ask me what kind of a Brahmin I was. I didn't even know I was a freshman at age nine. And he happened to ask me what kind of a man I was.
And then my father got to know about it. He was curious. He said that these are not issues and these are issues that should be completely shared in public discourse. It has no value or you were born is what you are, is by far more important than what you were born in. And it's a case in point with the school as to whether the teacher can question a student at what cost. So for me, it cost consciousness was the first political consciousness and my affection for action in my life, and therefore we motivated by going against cost.
And of course, the determination at many points to marry out of cross to different people from other gods to make India more homogenized. Society, which caste should not matter, became a matter of proving it in your life itself. You couldn't just it as a victim in a book or the paper, but had to become part of my life. And this value of cost of living your values.
I go to my parents and grandparents and then of course, you taught English at the college, at the university, and then joined the idea, the Indian Administrative Service. But you quit after seven years. What made you want to join the government?
I joined the government because at the time there were very few options for women. Let me say that I also feminist by age 11 because my mother mother was extremely strong and she said that no matter what happens, I my girls are not going to end up looking for marriage partners. That means that if they happen or not happen, but more importantly, my girls are going to be individuals on their own seeking out the professional life or carving out whatever work they want to do and be themselves.
And that is a very holy space that the sacred space, which no one should have to put this into. So I had to, for all kinds of reasons, get looking. So when I pass muster the English literature, the first option suggested that one was two and there were two or three jobs and two, three colleges. And I went back to my own college, but I found that English good bunch of students not really interested in the subject was very tedious.
So I really thought I should look for something else. And since I was always concerned about injustice, I was always concerned about poverty. The natural option was to see a space, but I could do something to redress all these huge heights that existed in society between principle and practice. So it led me to choose the ideas for the simple reason that it would somehow give me that space. And secondly, there was a space of dignity. So you didn't go asking for the job, but you disappeared for an exam.
And if you're qualified, you've got it. So obviously made it obvious on your own steam and you didn't have to feel obliged to anybody else was also an important factor in my choice. So I went. But I did not really think of it as a career. I didn't think of ending up as cabinet secretary. I didn't think of all those various things that people actually now the plan, even with the study as to where they're going to end up.
For me, it was none of those. It was how to do this. All of it is grievances I saw happening to people in society and in nineteen sixty seven in this body. So I voted for myself in 68. So they would be stuck out of complacency by the entire body revolution because it brought out the fact that things had not been delivered to people massively in so many spaces, and they were still thought of achieving those dreams of the Constitution and promises.
Though I never believed in violence and for that sake, call me a Gandhian. But nevertheless, that proved the fact that that government, somehow an independent government, our own government, had also failed to deliver. And these are questions that needed to be asked.
And for those of our listeners who don't know what the nuts about the incident you're talking about in nineteen sixty seven, could you just quickly tell us it was a worker's uprising in the states of West Bengal against the management, but it was late.
But Amol is still believed in violence, so there were some violent incidents that followed. But the principle of it, there was injustice against those workers workers and it was clear. But many of us did not agree with the Board of Education. What did your years in government teach? You haven't got me many things. Let me begin with a few quick stories. One is that it struck me once saying that sort of state invited said the most boring but had great value was that you must not only be transparent, but to be transparent.
So how do you appear to be transparent? Unless you're open, unless you disclose facts to be trusted by the loud mouth of your own great virtue. If you have to produce facts to prove your innocence or your honesty in government, and it's a huge comment on the state of the government. So this was one thing. The second thing it taught me was the value of the lawyers said they were sifting through all the various laws regarding the criminal procedure called the Indian Evidence Act and so on and so forth.
And all the revenue laws don't mean that these laws, though they are so ill known, can, in fact have a very great negative effect on them. So even to forestall that negative impact on people, you need to be armed with some knowledge of the law which can protect you. So laws are important for people. Strange as it may seem, the whole structure of government is invisible even to the most litigious people. You ask them about the district administration, the dialogue in the district, and they don't know with a judicial hierarchy, they don't know.
But for me, all of these hierarchies were very important later on in work to know how to be there, to feel what kind of way to go where and to use discrimination about the appellate process for grievances. When something happens to you for the poor people, they can't take an application for everything that goes wrong for the same space. They have to take it to different sources. And all that was made extremely clear, apart from the fact that that made a lot of sense.
And it maintains even today and though they don't totally agree with me on many things that I've done, because it got to me that the situation are in doesn't make you aware of the danger nature of your actions and the intent of your work and adherence to principles. And you can find it anyway, which was of great importance later on because of that RTI campaign we had in total support, including members of the IRS.
So what made you quit? Why did you quit that?
I quit because no bureaucracy was ever created for change. Bureaucracies are created for maintaining the status quo and actually they maintain the status quo in even narrower terms by being loyal. And what I just dislike in this context, no. A political party, which is the party in power, they should be going to the Constitution, but they are not. And let me tell you a very interesting small one liner. I went to a training of police officers two years ago and deputy superintendent of police.
The banks stood up and said to me in the meeting, asked me a question. He said, when can we be accountable only to the Constitution for our public work amongst the people?
In your book, you cite the Dalit activist northie as a guru.
What made her so anything similar to the woman? She is a friend and we've grown up together, work for the last 40 years. They've gone through many struggles together. But the minimum wage is about inequality. The very idea of many other forms is very much on issues in which she and I have differing opinions. She's talking. I have taught her how to take dissent and carry on with me and we're being equals. So there'd be no question of her being more important than me.
But as she says to each other. But the point is, I've made it I make a point of it because she is a guru, because we don't normally do not accept people like nobody ever as a guru. They will be produced in Harvard and in Cambridge and in Oxford or wherever or by this powerful institution that exists. But even the university as it is now, these are the diversity. But these are people with a common sense, have an innate sense of justice and hugely practical their approach and to exactly how that justice can be accessed.
So nauseas taught me many things and I put together for minimum wages in nineteen eighty, which became a Supreme Court case, we won the case and the government went up for a full bench division, the full bench of peace and justice justices ruled in our favor and it's a landmark judgement on minimum wages. Ever since then, we've been bonded together and we've been together in all kinds of public action. Bodies is case many other cases in the cases of becoming a member of the government program and becoming a leader in her, becoming the subject of a village in her efforts to learn how to operate the Internet and to make herself friendly with using the computer in so many ways.
She's been an intrinsic part of my life, and I think I continue to be continuing to fight now against the kind of dictatorial tendencies that governments are now developing. We are fighting together, as you said, French. She accessed her own records in the United States and shocked everybody because she still is a village gov and she looks like an old village grandmother and she access to documents and amazing. She has been to the United Nations. She is addressed to the biannual of the biannual report of the Women Women's Report.
She has been to Beijing. She has been everywhere. She has been to Germany. But if you see her, she just a simple old village woman, but she is an amazing woman. She takes everything so well, she's completely normal in every condition. Nothing ever upstages. She's a mother of two.
I want to ask you, you were a girl who grew up in New Delhi, and then, of course, you were in the civil service and all that. And then you moved to a tiny hamlet in Rajasthan and you lived in, you know, I'm sure not. I know that they were not comfortable conditions. How did you manage to do that? And what made you do that?
Actually, nothing is simple. It never comes from one reason for multiple reasons, and it's always a growing faith and a growing belief. But I always had a great the conditions of life only detected me. They always seemed so much more beautiful, even aesthetically then and even today, I feel I am in my domestic home at the moment. I feel that I have too much, even if they're just books. I mean, why do so many books why do I need to read you?
This is why do I need. So the whole discomfort with the economic privileges always being a part of my life and therefore to live in the country. There was happiness. It was a dream. It was beautiful. And because it combined with all this living asceticism, which was so much a part of my yearning for it for so many years, it combined a kind of work ethos that Mechelen chunka dancing into music, which was what I. Then give them stuff, but in my journey from the game to the IAEA in India, that finally led me to believe that this kind of struggle, which was Gandhi because Gandhi preached it, is there is ways that it would be raised by the system.
One was to struggle. One was through constructive work, and one was to service. So he also talked about struggles in that sense. We don't struggle against our own governments. So get what does that do? Who is so bad in that people's acceptance? We need people's mandate, not need not necessarily be through an electoral process. And then it brought in the other divergent idea that you could have an alternative political system which acts as a pressure group on the main political process.
So that this is a political group, it's a political group, it's not part of the political party process. So we call ourselves a non-party political organization.
It took 11 years for the RTI to be passed and lots of grassroots agitation, yet you never gave up.
What kept you going when you see clearly the benefits of something with hundreds and thousands of people? It was not a singular dream with many thousands of people. And you see that it can and should be delivered by an elected democratic government and it's upheld by constitutional validity. And if people didn't give up. How could I give up all the people who give their time and energy for the struggle to set the agenda in city after city based off the police did not give up what I was trying to do to the energy flowed from this kind of mass mobilization.
One incident when we sat in a big protest in nineteen ninety six in the other where actually the campaign was born, the National Campaign for Information. We wrote hundreds of us, sometimes hundreds of my four hundred and older people come. People had seen the public hearings and they realized that information out was to everything, right. To the rights of schooling. Rights to everything depended on the facts coming out. So they joined us. And now did they join us?
We went from village to village. It was four days of your time to sit with us and give us three kilos of whatever grade you eat. And we would sit on the corner. And so they came and we collected twenty tons of wheat. The grow in the local the and we cooked in a small space given to us by one of the businessmen in the because we sat back in the middle of the market outside the government office and it's historic.
And they able say very proudly today we gave the we should be known as the city.
Now RTI has two thousand five twenty twenty. So fifteen years in your assessment, is RTI taken seriously by the government? Do you think the punishments prescribed for RTI violations are adequate to ensure compliance? We know that since the RTI was passed, eighty four activists have been killed. What is your view on this?
In 2005 and 2006, we wanted them in the law, the same government that gave us the eye. So we had to go up and use public protest and tell them to stop the amendments. It was also joined by many other public leaders like VPC and so on. And we got the amendments stopped that that is extraordinary potential that six to eight million users area of the law. So it is an inch by inch process. It's a struggle and it continues to be a struggle.
And I think for generations of to me, it would continue to be a struggle because it's a struggle for power, the struggle for decision making. It's a struggle for sharing sovereignty.
And as we all know, the old adage information is power. And so whoever holds onto the information is the one holding the power, which is probably why the governments all over the country are reluctant to share these vital pieces of information, which is our right. I don't know. You've been labeled an urban nexus, a radical leftist and anti development. How do you respond to these accusations and to the people who make them?
You may dislike my thoughts. You would like my brand quite a few cities, and I don't accept that brand. I'm a generic person and in my nature, I fight for justice and I fight for justice for people who lack of access to justice. I try to work with them and I work with them to protest against it in a totally non-violent space. How can you call someone who believes in nonviolence? And actually what is wrong with us there should that we should accept this definition.
It's true that twenty years of. Or 30 years ago, I was considered a person who sacrificed whatever she had put in there.
I don't know, you know, everything you've written in your book, everything you've said today, it's so irrational. It's so sensible. But urban Indians have the sense that people like you and the development are against capitalism. How do you counter that? What do you what do you make of that kind of of a critique? And perhaps it's true. And so they're right. But this is one thing. Why are we why are people who would normally be totally aligned with the kind of activities you are undertaking sort of be at odds with with the way that this entire discussion around how we proceed with development in this country is happening?
I'm not anti anything I could ask for honesty and facts. And this we must dispel this myth that capitalism brings with it a nonsense attitude in government. We just have to look at the U.S. We have to look at we have to look at Hungary. We have to look at India. They have to look at many other countries. They're producing a new kind of democracy, a new kind of democratic majority and is what we fought against totalitarianism. But we are now bringing in a new kind of totalitarianism and full freedom of enterprise.
You need regulations, but you need honest regulations. You need freedom. But we need freedom regulated by an acceptance of other people's freedoms and rights because no, that is freedom. Unlimited freedom is limited in all senses. Even if you read it from or anybody else, it is limited by the others freedom. So let's act rationally. My fee is not for this system or that system. It's for the truth. It's full of facts and rationality. But I would like to say one thing in the end that in terms of looking at systems of government accountability is always of vital importance.
And the RTI gives you transparency, which is the first step towards accountability. You have to have a capitalist system which functions as the open market and fights for its own gain in the proper way that is meant to be I. I've never been against development of food. I am sitting in front of you with a bit of food. What is it, Madley? Or exactly against anything. So we can always see the means in which we can get development at the lowest cost that we can do assess and to the economy and to the nation.
And also, let's not forget, Schumacher also said small is beautiful. And let's not forget the other Galiano who said, why do I have to be a capitalist or a socialist cannot be somewhere in the middle and get both justice and progress. I can't be somebody like that. Could we?
Thank you so much. That was just wonderful. I feel so enthused and thank you from from all of us for this legislation has been of such tremendous benefit for all of us in India.
You. That was Aruna Roy, whose years of struggle helped give us the very significant Right to Information Act. Her life's work has been to ensure that people know their rights and that they hold governments to account. A healthy democracy needs multiple voices like hers to thrive.
You were listening to Uncommon Women on Report podcast.