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‘Change cannot be brought about by individuals or even a set of individuals’

Pamela Philipose | New Delhi 17 Nov 2011, Vol 2 Issue 46

These are busy days for Aruna Roy, founder member of the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), with the Jan Lok Pal and the need to check corruption emerging as big concerns in India.

The woman, who traded a promising career in the bureaucracy for an activist’s existence in 1975, is presently intensely involved in the issue. Pamela Philipose interviewed Roy when she was in Delhi.

These are busy days for former bureaucrat and now activist Aruna Roy with the Jan Lok Pal and the need to check corruption emerging as big concerns in India (Photo: WFS)

Q: Many see the right to information (RTI) movement as the mother of many new social movements we see today. 

A: The RTI movement was significant for many reasons. First, because it redefined the relationship between the people and the State. It established that there is a continuing engagement between the people, the government and the State, of which people and the State had two different but equally important obligations. The State had the obligation to inform the people it serves about what it is doing, why it is doing it, and how it is doing it.

The people came to understand that in a democracy, governments, government policy and institutions do not run independent of them and so they have a role to educate, monitor and demand changes in policy, programmes, the day-to-day running of activities that involve – for want of a better word – “governance”.

The RTI also established two more things: One, that social policy and social security are as important to the larger well-being of India as is growth. Second, it established that the right to information is actually a transformatory right because it translated all the rights under the Constitution into practice.

Q: But isn’t ensuring full popular participation in the true sense of the term difficult?

A: There will always be questions about participation. We may never have anything like “full participation” in absolute terms. But participation in various parts of the process of taking decisions and creating platforms for genuine debate to further a deeper understanding of issues should be a part of any campaign.

Participation arises from the process of people getting space to articulate what they feel is the necessary bottom line of development, or of rights, or of anything else, in a systematic and logical manner. And this information will ultimately be used with understanding, with knowledge, to form instruments of governance.

Very simple things have come out of hours of listening to people’s definitions and understanding their needs during the RTI campaign. First, there was the fact that you need information up in the public domain visibly. The view that if it was there just implicitly was enough came to be completely put aside. People wanted viewable, transparent governance.

Q: So does this experience inform your approach to the Jan Lok Pal Bill?

A: My approach to a Jan Lok Pal is a very organic one. Arguments for a Jan Lok Pal are very simple. Because we are trying to set up a body to monitor and oversee the processes that check corruption and the denial of rights to different people, this law, by its very nature, will have to address a large number of issues.

The malaise in the system is red tape, bureaucratic corruption, the denial of equality to people outside the system, the denial, in fact, of their right to question. Creating an edifice that is bigger than the sum of the parts of the solutions we are trying to come up with, would be self-defeating.

One institution to oversee all three institutions of bureaucracy, judiciary and legislature would be gigantic. And being so gigantic, it will fail in the process of monitoring itself and the three others it is meant to monitor.

My mother, who used to be a student of science and was always preoccupied until she died with physics and mathematics, would always tell me that if there is a really acute problem and the solution proposed for it is very complex, then it will not be a solution. The more simple the solution, the more thought has gone into it. If you haven’t seen the problem in its entirety, you can't come up with a simple solution.

Q: So how do you see the Jan Lok Pal process moving forward?

A: Two things are very important. One is the framing of the Lok Pal itself. The other is about corruption in a democracy. The Lok Pal will address the corruption in the system of governance, which if it functioned well will bring down some of the obvious aspects of corruption. But let’s not forget that when we talk of corruption we are also looking at huge amounts of corruption outside government today.

Because of the kind of economic stratagems – thanks to the dominant economic paradigm that we have accepted – much of the money and much of the decision-making has shifted from the government to the private sector. Big money and big business has come into the media, it has come into corporations, it has come into NGOs, and many other structures, including professional groups like doctors and the like.

So you actually have to see how democracy can make equality and equal access important norms for every Indian, no matter where he or she is placed. Given that, I think, the need today is for accepting and facing issues centrally and not have these black-and-white – simplistic actually – definitions of corruption. There is also the need for the internalisation of ethics, the internalisation of the need to share, especially among those who are now madly following their dream of affluence.

Q: What makes you hopeful?

A: If I did not have faith that people can change things, I would pack my bags and leave. There are so many beautiful examples of this, but they never get media attention so we don’t know about them. The challenge is to get those small battles won every day. And I live in the middle of those people. When I see them full of hope, I have absolutely no business to nurture feelings of hopelessness.

Change cannot be brought about by one individual or even a set of individuals. But what every set of individuals can contribute is to make that little difference, which together with other efforts can turn many wheels, so that the larger wheel will be forced to turn. - Women's Feature Service

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