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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 44, October 22, 2011

Aruna Roy speaks of Keeping Intact RTI Law, explains Approach to Jan Lokpal

Tuesday 25 October 2011


‘Let’s not forget that when we talk of corruption, we are also looking at huge amounts of corruption outside the government today,’ says Aruna Roy.
These are busy days for Aruna Roy, 65, founder member of the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), with the Jan Lokpal and the need to check corruption emerging as one of the big concerns before India today. The woman, who traded a promising career in the bureaucracy for an activist’s existence in 1975, is presently intensely engaged with the anti-corruption issue and the MKSS had recently hosted a public discussion in the Capital on a law to protect whistleblowers. Pamela Philipose, Director of Women’s Feature Service, interviewed Roy when she was in Delhi. The following is the text of the interview.

Ques: Many see the right to information (RTI) movement as the mother of many new social movements we see today. How would you link experiences with the RTI and the present anti-corruption movement?

The right to information movement was significant for many reasons. First, because it redefined the relationship between the people and the state. Until then, the state and people’s lives were seen as mutually exclusive. Occasio-nally one made demands on the state but for the rest of the time people lived their own lives. The RTI movement 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 who it serves 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 to demand changes in policy, in programmes, in the day-to-day running of activities that involve—for want of a better word—“governance”.

So this established a relationship that redefined both the nature of governance and the role of the people and government. It also demanded and brought a greater sense of equality into that relationship. It meant that power sharing with the people was acknowledged and seen as some-thing inevitable by the powers-that-be—at least at the theoretical level.

Since these principles were established, we have seen how the MNREGA, the Forest Rights Act, the Food Security Bill, and so on, have dealt with the people’s perception of their demands. There is a need to define those demands in terms of legislation and policy and that definition has to be participatory so that the final outcomes actually benefit the people. Arguments that are generally raised about not having proper planning, or proper humanpower, or not having this or that, cannot become excuses for denying large numbers of people in this country their right to survival.

The RTI also established two more things: It established that social policy and social security are as important in the larger well-being of India as 8.5 per cent growth. So it implicitly questioned the development paradigm. Secondly, it established that the right to information is actually a transformatory right because it translated all the rights under the Constitution into practice.

Ques: But the challenge seems to be in ensuring full popular participation in the true sense of the term.

See, 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 and dialogue to further deeper understanding of issues should be a part of any campaign. The old argument that I have heard since I began working—and which has often got framed as a feminist versus non-feminist debate —is whether the process is more important than the final outcome, or whether the final outcome is more important than the process.

This is a bit like the chicken-and-egg story. I feel this dialectic is very important for delivering a finished product, however you may want to define it. 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 under-standing, with knowledge, to form instruments of governance.

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

Now how that viewable, transparent governance would translate into tools involved many things. Large masses of people, who don’t have access to traditional and conservative tools of communication, need to tell us how those tools need to be shaped. For instance, take the concept of penalty in the RTI process. That was something people were very sure about. And, of course, in one sense it is the fulcrum on which the implementation of the RTI Act depends because if you don’t have the penalty, nobody delivers. That information would not be made public and in time, unless there is a fear of some kind of punishment, was an insight gained through many public hearings.

The devil really lies in the details. So for the public distribution system (PDS), what do you need to do? Only people who actually face problems with the PDS can define them. Or take basic situations of confrontation with the way the law is administered. Where do the real problems lie? Where do the information fogs occur when somebody is persecuted by the state? And what are the couple of things which, when made public, force the rest of the picture to emerge?
Ques: But there are limitations to popular participation. People cannot per se draft laws.

The process of drafting need not necessarily be done by people. They have to be done by those who listened to the people. They can be experts or skilled jurists who know the existing laws and how to craft new ones. The quarrel, which even now echoes, is whether these laws should be drafted by the people themselves. I think the people should be the spirit, the mandate behind the law. At the same time, there are those even outside the formal structure of the government who are capable, who had been made literate in legal procedures, juris-prudence, and so on, who know what it takes to do such drafting. So they can certainly play an important role in shaping the new law.

But remember, also, that between the struggle which defines the priorities, and the formulation of the law—which is a very skilled process—there has to be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. That was our experience during the drafting of the RTI process.

Ques: So does this experience also inform your approach to the present Jan Lokpal Bill?

My approach to a Jan Lokpal is a very organic one. There are points at which you arrive at a single issue, but the way in which you address a single issue will be determined by the sum of your experiences and the reflection that has gone into the process. Arguments for the Jan Lokpal are very simple, really. Because we are trying to set up a body to monitor and which will oversee the processes that check corruption and the denial of rights for different people. So 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 which 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 the 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. The larger the organisation, the more incom-petent and inefficient it will be in overseeing itself.

I think this is simply common sense. Some of the greatest political thinkers have seen common sense as the basis for democracy. So a commonsensical approach would maintain that an institution to fight corruption would have to be small enough so that it doesn’t itself become a victim of corruption. And it should also be focused enough to look at issues clearly.

Take something like public grievance. It is huge. Grievance, in contrast to corruption, is about the day-to-day small issues that need to addressed and remedied immediately, and that needs a bottom-up approach. This is an insight we gained from years working with poor people.

My mother, who used to be a student of science, who 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. We have to have a perception that is very simple, and the more simple it is, the more thought has gone into it. If you haven’t seen the problem in its entirety then you can’t come up with a simple solution.

Ques: So how do you see the Jan Lokpal process moving forward?

There are actually two things that are very important. One is the framing of the Lokpal itself, the other is about corruption in a democracy. The Lokpal will address the corruption in the system of governance, which if it functioned well will bring down some of the obvious and tenacious aspects of corruption. But let’s not forget that when we talk of corruption, we are looking at huge amounts of corruption outside the government today. Because of the kind of economic stratagems—thanks to the dominant economic paradigm which we have accepted—much of the money and much of the decision-making has shifted from the government to the private sector. Much of the decision-making has even shifted to outsourcing through public-private partnerships. Big money and big business has come into the media, big money and big business has come into corporations, big money and big business 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 in the middle of the debate and not have these black-and-white simple—simplistic actually—definitions of corruption and definitions of the lack of delivery of governance. 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.

You also have to look at religion and religious structures today. They are huge. Just look at the kind of figures that have emerged over the last few months of the money that is available to religious groups. So what should the role of religious institutions be? Should they enter politics? Or should they confine themselves to the spiritual aspects of life? These are all vital questions.

Ques: Parliamentary democracy seems to be facing a crisis of confidence.

One of the interesting debates that have emerged is the role of parliamentary democracy. Do you want parliamentary democracy or not? And if you don’t want parliamentary democracy, what do you want? Because you can’t damn Parliament, you can’t damn the parliamentary processes of electoral participation and then say that you still want a democracy without these structures. We can argue—and it is a very valid argument—to say that these are corrupt structures. The question is: what will you substitute them with?

In a highly pluralistic society, such as ours, it is possible to ignore that our lives are based on differences. But to contain those differences can you have a system that takes your mind and your entire vocabulary and puts everything into black and white, into Bushisms—that you are either with me or with the enemy. And also, to my mind, using market forces to sell and package your politics and democratic perceptions is very, very dangerous. Because both politics and democratic perceptions are by definition very plural and we cannot define them in narrow terms.

One of the issues that have come up is the role of legislative processes, the inability to differentiate between the pre-legislative processes and the legislative processes. All these issues are now clearly defined in people’s minds. This brings me to the definition of civil society. Is it one mass? What is the meaning of “you can’t divide civil society”? Civil society is divided. We are divided into caste, class, gender, language, religions, we are divided by linguistic barriers, culture, food habits, and so on. India is a coming together of various separate groups. So to say civil society should be one is an absurdity.

Many notions that we have carried with us so far have been questioned and I think it is very good for politics that these questions have emerged. Now the task in front of us is also quite onerous. The law aside, we will have to look at how we can cleanse the electoral processes, because if you believe in parliamentary democracy you need to get better people into Parliament. They have to be more accountable, take a pledge of transparency instead of a pledge of secrecy. We have to fight battles, like the battle to keep the RTI law intact. The government is now trying to put more and more things under wraps and that is disturbing.

But, at the same time, one has to understand that, for the poor, governments matter—in terms of their lives, livelihoods and protection. So how do you strengthen the state and yet make it accountable? How do you keep it on keel and still make it transparent? How do you dissolve this irrational polarisation between transpa-rency and inefficiency? We have a huge number of debates and battles ahead.

Ques: What makes you hopeful? It seems to be your optimism that keeps you going.

If I did not have faith that people can change things, I would pack my bags and leave. But I do believe people can change things. 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 self-pity or hopelessness. When they, who are without food and without shelter, still believe they can control their destiny, who am I to be pessimistic?

Also one important empowerment process that I have firmly believed in is the ability to understand what one wants to say, to articulate it and then fight for a platform to say it. Now this is democracy and if the women’s movement had not happened we would have been completely smothered. Of course it doesn’t end there, because people keep getting co-opted into the power system. So the process is a cyclical one. It could change from issue to issue. But it is a process that could energise India provided it is tethered to a sense of justice and fairness.

It would disquiet me as a human being if I cannot speak out about whatever I think is going wrong. It might be about a Dalit atrocity in my village, or it might be a big mistake in our polity at the national level. I may not be able to do anything about it, but I would need to articulate it. I think that is what keeps me going. This is not about any kind of achievement, but the fact that one gets some space to state clearly what one perceives as misrule, or misuse of public policy or politics. If one can do this, then ultimately one has done one’s bit.

I say this with a sense of humility. 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.

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