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).
Like Hema, Jayaram had a mixed education. He, too, was steeped in Indian culture, which he had studied at Rabindranath Tagore's Shantineketan at a time when the renowned founder was still teaching there. Jayaram's family included several social activists, and he himself joined the independence movement. Eventually, he became a civil servant, starting as a librarian in the law department of the Government of India and retiring as legal adviser to the Council of Scientific and Individual Research. Outside his profession, he wrote music and film critiques in English.
Hema and Jayaram had four children, three girls and one boy. Aruna, the eldest, was born on May 26, 1946, in her grandparents' home in Chennai. For much of her childhood, however, the family lived in New Delhi. Here she and her siblings were raised to be free thinkers.
Aruna was only three and a half years old when she entered her first school, a Catholic convent in Madras, while vacationing with her grandparents. Returning to New Delhi, she spent the next five years as one of many Indian children attending the conservative Convent of Jesus and Mary, run by French and English nuns. She remembers the nuns with fondness, especially the French teacher who pasted gold and silver stars of excellence on the notebook of her only Indian pupil.
Aruna's father then decided she needed to learn about her own culture. He sent her to Kalakshetra, a famous art school in Adayar, Madras, established by a strong-willed and revolutionary woman named Rukmani Devi, who had studied ballet in Russia and then married a Theosophist, Lord Arundale. Her school welcomed Indian children, both those living in the country and those coming from abroad, as well as foreigners. Aruna remained there for two years, learning art and classical dance (Bharata Natyam) and Indian Carnatic classical music. Kalakshetra was affiliated with the Theosophical Society of India, some of whose figures, along with the philosopher J. Krishnamurti, had greatly influenced E. D. Jayaram.
After Kalakshetra, Jayaram placed his daughter in a school called Aurobindhu Ashram in Pondicherry, which boasted a flexible structure. She was unhappy there and, after a year, was transferred to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in New Delhi, a school established by another famous Indian, K. M. Munshi, who believed in Indianizing education. Although the language of instruction was English, great emphasis was placed on Indian culture. It was there that Aruna completed her precollegiate education.
The Jayaram family spoke Tamil, English, and Hindi at home. Upon her father's urging, Aruna learned French at the convent school in Delhi and at the Alliance Franšaise. When they were young, the children had books read to them by their parents and listened to classical music from the West and from north and south India. That was Jayaram's influence, while Hema exposed them to veena music. It was important to them that their children take up some form of classical music. Aruna learned Carnatic, or South Indian, classical singing.
Both Jayaram and Hema made sure their children did not grow up harboring prejudices against any form of religious expression or art. They encouraged them to have an open mind and to appreciate the various ways different cultures express themselves. Jayaram was an atheist but Hema herself was a believer, although not a very devout one. They decided to raise their children to respect all religions. The family celebrated Christmas as well as the birth of the Buddha and various Hindu festivals.
As would be expected in such a liberal and unconventional family, dinnertime was always punctuated by lively discussions. Aruna recalls that her mother used to jest that there should be a sign outside the house saying, "If you can't argue, please don't enter."
Mahatma Gandhi wielded a tremendous influence on the family's life. Jayaram was a great admirer of Gandhi, and he frequently quoted him to his children and told them stories about this great Indian. "I have lived with Gandhi all my life," says Aruna. "He was a living memory when I was born. Gandhi was everywhere when I was young and in a sense he is today." Although she was too young to have actual memories of the day the Mahatma was assassinated, she says she can "emotionally remember" it and "can feel it even today-the complete anguish of all my family and neighborhood." Later on, she would also hear about the Indian communist M. N. Roy, whom her father also admired. Together, Gandhi and Roy would be her heroes "because they were so true to themselves."
Aruna was a voracious reader who, as a child, preferred to read books rather than play with friends. She remembers that she read whatever she could lay her hands on. Although most of her family's monthly income went to education and household expenses and very little to clothes, there were always books and other reading materials at home, some of them passed down through the family. Jayaram was also a member of several libraries and always brought books home for his children to read. No restrictions were placed on the books the children could read and Aruna grew up with Aesop's fables, the Russian witch Baba Yaga, and the Panchatantra folk stories in English.
No one in her family was surprised that she chose to major in English literature in college. When she was interviewed for admission to Indraprastra College in New Delhi, the panel thought she was lying when she told them everything she had read. No sixteen-year-old, they thought, could have read all that. Indraprastra College was a nondenominational all-women's institution. It was an old-fashioned school, not much different from what it had been in her mother's time. The extracurricular activities did not go beyond the usual fields such as literature, social welfare, and drama-not very exciting prospects for a girl of Aruna's vast and varied interests. But she reveled in the school's unlimited number and variety of books. She read history and philosophy and everything from Sappho to Shakespeare to Tolstoy. She loved reading about the Renaissance. She says she is grateful to two teachers who guided her college years: Sheila Uttamsingh, who introduced her to War and Peace, and Rathi Bartholomew, who taught her Shakespeare.
After college in 1965, Aruna went straight to the University of Delhi for two years of post-graduate work. One of her classmates there was Sanjit "Bunker" Roy whom she would later marry. Bunker Roy was captain of the university tennis team and India's number one squash player. His nickname came from the Bengali habit of rhyming names; his brother's name was Shanker, and so he became Bunker. Born in Calcutta, Bunker was one of the Brahmo Bengalis, a group founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the 1830's after his sister was killed in sati. The Brahmo Bengalis were among the first to speak out against the caste system and to advocate education for women. Among his relatives, Bunker counted Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Parsis, and Muslims as well as freedom fighters. Both of Bunker's grandfathers had been in the ICS, the Indian Civil Service, and one of them, Dr. B. R. Sen, was director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
After earning her master's degree, Aruna refused to settle for the kind of life that awaited most other Indian women of her circumstances: homemaking. She was determined to be different. In an article she wrote in 1996, she said, "As a woman, I wanted to work and not get married and pass into the limbo of passivity." But there were not too many options open to women at that time. Teaching and journalism were two of them, but neither appealed to Aruna. As much as she loved literature, she did not see herself spending the rest of her life helping students get excited about stories and poems. Nor did she want a newspaper job. Since she preferred a career that was not in the private sector, the civil service was the only option left to her. So, while teaching nineteenth-century literature for a year at Indraprastra College, she reviewed for and took the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), or civil service, examinations in 1967. She was twenty-one.
Of the one hundred people from all over India who qualified for the IAS that year, Aruna was one of only ten women. Aruna and the ninety-nine other new IAS members were sent to the Academy of Administration in northern India for a year's training. There they were taught to ride horses and given guidelines on courtesies and etiquette from an outdated British civil-servant's handbook that Aruna, already a rebel, found ridiculous in the postcolonial 1960s when Gandhian simplicity should have become the ideal way of life. They were also trained in basic administration, economics, law, and languages. Aruna's class succeeded in convincing the authorities that it made sense to sandwich a year of probation in between two six-month stints of formal training at the academy. This was implemented with the class following theirs. She and some of her fellow probationers also objected to the rigid horseback riding they were required to do. Aruna, in particular, was terrified of horses and suffered the traumatic experience of being thrown and injured. When her instructor insisted that she learn to ride, saying, "If you can't ride your horse, how will you control your district?" she was ready with a sharp retort. "I may be able to control my district," she said, "but never your horse."
After the academy, the trainees were sent to districts as IAS officers, there to apprentice with collectors, as the heads of the district administration are called. An IAS officer wields substantial power and influence in the district to which he or she is assigned, and is expected to help solve the area's social problems. Since she spoke Tamil, Aruna was sent to Tamil Nadu in the south of India. Her first assignment as a trainee was in the rural district of Tiruchi. But to her disappointment the collector did not want to take her out on his rounds: he was afraid of what his wife might think. Aruna then went to the chief secretary and requested a transfer, which was granted. She was sent to North Arcot, which became her first experience of living in a rural community. Convinced at first that she was meeting the truly poor and hearing their voices during her visits to the villages, she soon realized how little she actually knew about rural realities.
As a new probationer, Aruna spent a month with a local revenue officer before being assigned directly to a collector. Among those with whom she worked during the following year, was T. V. Venketaraman, who made a lasting impression. Aruna will always be grateful to him for having taught her what it means to be a civil servant. Venketaraman gave his probationers simple, independent tasks. He reminded them that as public officials they should always make time to meet with anyone who wished to see them, no matter what the hour. Although a meeting might take only ten minutes of an official's time, the petitioner may have traveled for ten hours to speak to an official. Aruna would remember these words in later years whenever she saw how government red tape made it difficult for ordinary people to contact their officials.
There were more men than women in the IAS at that time. Aruna had to establish her credibility again and again, by making sound decisions and, sometimes, by such "masculine" activities as driving a jeep. For easier administration, districts were divided into subdivisions. Each subdivision had anywhere between three hundred and four hundred villages. Never comfortable with the concept of hierarchy, she often found herself trapped into making decisions without having received adequate information from the subdistrict authorities.
Despite some misgivings about her work, Aruna had to admit she was learning a great deal. Her parents had taught her to construe every experience, no matter how unpleasant, as an opportunity to learn. And so she walked through paddy fields for the first time in her life and met village commoners and village elites and even political figures she only used to read about. Yet she came to feel she was not really encountering those in the villages who needed her most: the poor.
She often thought about her friend Bunker Roy and about his response to the horrible famine in Bihar that had broken out during their school days. Bunker had immediately volunteered to go and help. Joining other students in Bihar, he witnessed extreme poverty at close range, and also the inept efforts of government to do something about it. It was a defining moment for him. Upon graduation from the university in 1967, he decided that he had no right to lead the comfortable life fortune had provided him and, instead, committed himself to doing something for India's hungry poor.
In 1970, Aruna and Bunker were married in a simple ceremony to which she wore a plain cotton sari. Before the wedding, the couple had agreed on conditions that would govern their married life. They would have no children to tie them down; they would not be financially dependent on each other; they would not impose their beliefs on each other; and they would both be free to do whatever they wanted. To this day, Aruna wears nothing to indicate that she is married, although she has changed her last name to Roy.
By the time of her marriage, Aruna had become a subcollector in Pondicherry. Upon returning to her post, the people took to calling her Madame Roy, because it was a former French territory, which she definitely preferred to "Sir." In Pondicherry, she was in charge of land records and court cases, especially those involving land repossession. She also collected revenues and oversaw the work of other departments. The only job she was squeamish about was to attend exhumations.
A year later, Aruna arranged to be transferred to Delhi so that she could be closer to Bunker. As a subdivisional magistrate in the city, she had jurisdiction over six police stations. Besides carrying out her regular duties, she was called upon to handle student unrest and elections. Since New Delhi was the seat of the national government, Aruna now saw for herself the extent of corruption and kowtowing that went on in the country's center of power.
Aruna herself soon became part of the Delhi (Union Territory) administration, working first in the office of the deputy commissioner as a subdivisional magistrate; next in the office of the chief secretary as deputy secretary for finance; and then, in 1973, in the office of the lieutenant governor as secretary. By this time, she was becoming deeply disillusioned. She had entered the IAS feeling that "the government will provide the framework for working effectively for social justice within a strictly legal framework." What she saw instead was senior civil servants currying favor with powerful politicians in order to advance in their careers; the feudal trappings of a civil service that posed obstacles to any meaningful change; and the aloofness of the bureaucracy to the poor, who lacked access to officials. She saw, for example, how the government evicted a powerless old woman from her land and paid her a pittance for it, and how a man who made palm wine could not get a license to sell it because eleven families in Delhi controlled the entire market.
Aruna realized that the problem resided partly with the people, because they had not learned how to speak up for themselves. But it also resided in the system, because the officials had been trained to think of themselves as above the people. She blamed the system for its wrong orientation and wrong priorities.
There were, however, two people whom she admired as model civil servants. One was S. R. Shankeran, a bachelor who was secretary of Rural Development to the Government of India. More than his professionalism, it was his courage to speak out and the simplicity of his lifestyle that Aruna admired. He lived on a modest budget and donated the rest of his salary to children who needed help with their schooling. The other was M. K. Bezboruah, who entered the civil service at the same time Aruna did and rose to Secretary to the Tariff Commission, Government of India. A conservative man, he enforces the law without fear or favor and has been fighting corruption within the system.
Aruna took her time in deciding the next step in her career. She could remain in the IAS and continue to "work from within." She could do research in the social sciences. Or she could join her husband Bunker, who in 1972 had established the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) in Rajasthan. She sought the advice of friends and family. Her mother-in-law, herself a working woman, advised her not to leave the IAS with all its privileges. Her friends felt the same way. Her mother simply told her to do what she thought best. Bunker refused to offer an opinion, a clever move, Aruna said later, since then she could not say, "I did it because of you." Her father was mainly concerned that Aruna not become dependent on Bunker. Her brother had not yet finished college, the family was financially insecure, and, although Aruna was not the main breadwinner, she did contribute to the household.
Taking a six-month leave to join Bunker at the SWRC in 1974, Aruna saw firsthand what he was doing. She felt envious of the relationship of equality he enjoyed with the people, in contrast to the deferential treatment she received as a civil servant. She came to a decision. She would leave the IAS as soon as her brother finished college. Thus, later in 1974, she resigned from the civil service and joined her husband in Tilonia, Rajasthan. (Hoping she would reconsider, the IAS did not act on her resignation until the following year).
Aruna was twenty-eight when she first arrived in the small village of Tilonia. She chose Tilonia, she says, "because I wanted to understand socio-economic realities but also to work with individuals and to recognize faces-to work, in other words, with human beings, not with an aggregate of human beings reduced to a statistical number." She was also fired with a desire to live a simple and holistic life and to probe the nature of empowerment, something she felt she could not do "as someone in a position of authority seen as powerful by others."
But her arrival in Tilonia presented challenges both to herself and to her SWRC coworkers, who worried (unnecessarily, as it turned out) that she might try to bureaucratize the organization. Meanwhile, not only did she have to learn to speak Rajasthani, she also had to learn the politics of development and gender. Unaccustomed to community living, she found her first year very difficult and confusing. This was not because of the poor living conditions but because she had to adjust and even change her mental perception. "I had to change from talking to listening. And I had to learn that the IAS training I had been given, in being an instant expert, had to be discarded if I wanted to understand the complexities of socio-economic change," she said.
Aruna had to remind herself that she had both a domestic role and a professional role in her newly adopted community. Stripped of her IAS status, she relearned how to interact with villagers and, in time, she found her dialogues with them more honest than those she had had as a civil servant. Without a badge, she now shared their circumstances and, in more than one instance, found herself waiting outside local government offices to see officials and chafing at the long delays.
At that time, the SWRC was funded by several agencies both in and outside India, among them the Tata Trust, Oxfam, and Christian Aid, along with certain British agencies and the Indian and Rajasthani governments. The SWRC was among the first organizations in India to focus on professionalizing rural development work and to introduce community-based, participatory research and technology. It broke new ground in other areas as well. It introduced the concept of the barefoot health worker in Rajasthan and experimented with a primary education program with day and night shifts to enable all the children to go to school. The SWRC also sponsored in 1975 the very first "development bazaar" in India, bringing together traditional artisans to convey development messages.
Aruna lived with the seventeen other SWRC employees, many of them from the middle class. Three were from the Tata Institute of Social Science and another three were geologists from the Indian Institute of Technology. They all enjoyed the same privileges and lived in the same accommodations. They shared household and organizational duties, from preparing meals when the cook was absent, to becoming involved in the children's education and in various income-generating programs for the people. At first, Aruna had to deal with hostility from the prosperous sectors of the village, but this helped her to gain a better understanding of the caste system prevailing in Rajasthan. She had loved crafts since her days in Kalakshetra and was familiar with looms and woodcraft, so she particularly enjoyed the time she spent with the lower-caste Dalit community, who were weavers and leather workers. But she also wanted to work with the scheduled castes and the artisans.
During her nine years with the SWRC, Aruna says, "I really was educated-in processes, in methods, in human relationships, in understanding women." She learned that the ability to read and write is not the only way to measure a person's intelligence; she met several people who were not educated at all but who were quick to grasp the significance of things. She once said, "We call people who work with mud and earth, and sand and stone, unskilled labor in India. I cannot in this lifetime wield the implements that they use either to dig the earth or to shovel the earth. I can't carry the loads. That's extremely specialized. But they are called unskilled, and I am called skilled because I can write with the pen. I cannot accept this. I find it extremely non-egalitarian to say they are unskilled and I am skilled. It's only a way of looking at it. Knowledge is also like that."
Female empowerment was also on the SWRC's agenda. Aruna learned that, despite appearances, Rajasthani women had power of their own and were not afraid to use it. For example, couples had to agree on what to plant in their fields. If a man chose a crop that the woman did not approve of, he could not sow it. When it came to their bodies, the women were not shy about asking Aruna and the others about the kinds of birth control available and their possible side effects. From the women of Rajasthan she imbibed courage, a sense of humor, and equality. "They never thought they were less than me in any way whatsoever," she says. They were "very intelligent, astute, extremely compassionate human beings" who gave her love and affection she will never forget. In particular, she singles out an old woman named Dhani Bhua, who fetched water for the SWRC and was like a grandmother to her, protecting her from the nasty men in the village and teaching her ways of winning people over.
Aruna sometimes refers to Tilonia as "my alma mater" because being there was "like going to the university all over again. It gave me space and time to learn." She learned, for example, that "the strength of collective decision making and political responsibility is not only a question of recognizing other people's ability. It is also recognizing one's own limitations." She learned that "you can never evaluate anything standing from outside; you have to evaluate yourself first." And she also learned that "the internal and external ethics of an organization must be the same; you cannot talk about minimum wages for poor people and not pay minimum wages to your own workers." A more basic lesson of Tilonia was this: "You have to relate to people as human beings."
It was during this period that Aruna also began to realize how effective information can be in mobilizing people. Her awakening was inspired by a Dalit (lower caste) woman named Naurti. In 1981 Naurti, a worker from the nearby village of Harmara, gathered five hundred men and women and convinced them not to accept their government wages until everyone was receiving the legal minimum wage and all back payments were made. A revenue officer contacted Aruna, asking her to convince the workers to end their protest and to accept their wages. Aruna did as she was asked but made friends with Naurti in the process. The government then instigated departmental action against the responsible sarpanch (the elected head of the village). The SWRC filed a writ in the Supreme Court of India on behalf of Naurti's cause. In the matter of "Sanjit Roy vs. the Government of Rajasthan," the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the workers and all back payments of wages were made in full. The case represented one of the first writs filed before the Indian Supreme Court by Rajasthan concerning the nonpayment of minimum wages.
In the feminist-activist Naurti, who saw "with remarkable clarity that every cause was both personal and collective," Aruna found not only a teacher but also a friend and fellow traveler. "Naurti," she later wrote, "has taken me on a journey where we have had to explore social realities in a manner in which I was forced to learn newer methods of talking, listening and responding to poor people's needs. But more basic was learning to face my own fears of public inquiry, of public criticism, of ridicule, of my timidity about street politics and the dynamics of caste and mohalla neighbourhood politics."
As early as 1981, Aruna had become convinced that "development is politics and there can be no development without political will." The SWRC, to her mind, defined politics only in the limited sense of party politics. She, in contrast, saw a need for political action at the grass roots, a need to go beyond helping the people to become self-sufficient. As a voluntary agency, the SWRC provided communities with opportunities to learn but the people hardly mobilized or held sustained protests. They needed an organization that would give them a better understanding of the politics that affects any and all development programs. A series of meetings within the SWRC about the issue led to disagreements. Aruna realized that she would have to find some other outlet for her beliefs and the work she wanted to do. Years later, when an interviewer asked her why she left the SWRC in 1983, she explained, "I felt that economic development alone could not solve problems at the grass roots."
For the next four years, Aruna worked with women's groups in Madhya Pradesh, Jaipur, and all over Rajasthan. She also traveled to Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. In between these trips, she returned to Bunker and Tilonia, helping out as needed. One of the significant events during this time was the mela (fair) held in Rajasthan in 1985, which she helped organize, along with the SWRC, the Institute of Developmental Studies in Jaipur, the Seva Mandir from Udaipur, and the State Government's Women's Development Program. The mela was designed to be India's counterpart to the international women's conference held that year in Nairobi, Kenya, to which Aruna had been invited. One thousand women came from all over India to participate in the four-day event, nine hundred of them from the rural areas and one hundred from urban districts. The women sang and danced and discussed subjects of interest to them, from jewelry to marriage to grass cutting. Regardless of language and caste barriers, they formed connections with one another and bonded. The event ended with a rally to protest the government's failure to act on a report of rape of a minor. It was a sign that changes were about to come.
Those four years were a period of soul-searching for Aruna. At the same time, she was searching for people who shared her views on alternative forms of development and with whom she could work harmoniously. She found these qualities in Shankar Singh, a college graduate who had worked with the SWRC and had a gift for rural communication. Singh had been through seventeen jobs, mostly manual, in small factories and other establishments, and now was in Tilonia to help set up a rural communication unit. Another person who shared Aruna's vision was Nikhil Dey, a young man who had given up his studies in the United States and returned to India hoping to become a rural activist.
In the summer of 1987, the three of them, together with Shankar's wife and children, moved to Devdungri, a village 160 kilometers from Tilonia. They had no set agenda, only a dream of building an organization for the rural poor. But they knew what they did not want to do. They would not operate the same way most nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, did. They would not accept outside funding, for example, whether from government or international agencies. They would not set up conventional institutional structures and the usual delivery systems for services, nor would they pamper themselves with vehicles of their own. They would not live better than the small farmers did or accept wages higher than unskilled laborers earned. Instead, they would live as simply as Gandhi himself had done.
Devdungri was a drought-prone and environmentally degraded area. Landholdings were too small to be viable farms, yet there were few other sources of livelihood. In the summer, scores of people migrated in search of jobs. In times of famine, the government came in to construct roads and water tanks, but corruption was rampant. Wages were low and erratic and people went into debt to meet their daily needs. The literacy level was abysmal, especially among women.
Aruna , Shankar, and Nikhil spent three years in Devdungri and shared their hut that had neither electricity nor running water with anyone who came to visit. At first, they drew salaries from the earnings of research studies about education and poverty-relief programs, financed by the Ministry of Human Resources, Government of India. Their household budget was dictated by the state's minimum wage, which at the time was approximately fourteen rupees a day. They observed a sparse, strictly vegetarian diet and once went for two months eating nothing but ghiya (bottle gourd) because it was the only vegetable minimum wage earners could afford to buy. The one luxury they allowed themselves was a half-earthen toilet that was connected to a septic tank. They treated everyone as equals, regardless of caste, but they decided to switch gender roles, assigning the men to fetch water and carry it back on their heads as the women traditionally did. Their actions were not meant to provoke discussion, though that was inevitable; they simply lived as they wished, transparently, since it is not possible to separate one's personal and professional lives in rural India. "When you go there," says Aruna, "you accept that it is so." In time, they won the respect of the villagers.
The change from Tilonia to Devdungri was, for Aruna, "a more major shift in perception than the earlier one from the IAS to Tilonia." This was because in coming to Devdungri she intended to use everything she had learned in Tilonia to "redefine the paradigm of development-to see the whole process of development from a different perspective." As in her stint with the IAS, she again saw her role as that of initiator, catalyst, and agent for change. Leadership, however, would come from the people themselves. They would decide the issues, the direction, and the priorities.
While feudalism existed in India, after Independence the government enacted a "land ceiling" act. This enactment allowed people to hold land only up to a specified limit; the surplus was to be allotted by government to landless people. In many cases, however, the surplus land was allotted only on paper. In reality, landowners cut deals with lower officials to make sure their lands were never actually reassigned to others. Thus, the land remained unclaimed and unoccupied, but anyone who used it for any purpose had to give the landlords half of their produce. For example, if such land was used to graze cattle, the landlords expected to be given half of the cows' milk.
In 1988, villagers in Sohangarh sought the help of Aruna and her companions. A landlord, whom she describes as a "classic villain," had laid claim to twenty-five hectares of forested land and was now making demands on villagers for its use. But they were no longer willing to pay. For the next two years, and under volatile circumstances-the landlord hired gunmen to attack the troublemakers-the activists helped the villagers regain control of the land. Their campaign yielded results: in the end, the collector of Udaipur forced the landlord to accede the land. The villagers then developed it under a one-time grant from the Wasteland Development Board and today it is a model of forest and water conservation.
The successful resolution of this dispute over land established the activists' credibility. At the same time, the villagers came to realize that there was strength in numbers. After deliberating for a year, the people of the area decided to form an organization. Five thousand people gave their blessing to the formation of the Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), or Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants.
The MKSS was an unconventional organization. The activists did not wish to be registered as a society or even as a trade union, since their group had no hierarchy and no leader. Even today no written formal constitution or document exists on the MKSS. Its initiators are careful not to fall into the trap of speaking development jargon, lest they be alienated from the people they wish to serve. The MKSS does not accept donations from any institutional body, Indian or foreign, although it does accept contributions from sympathetic individuals. There are no formal membership fees. Membership is determined by people's active participation in MKSS activities. Aruna maintains that while the organization realizes there are people who would willingly pay for membership, such a system would not be advisable because "they might be all the wrong people who may even work against the ethics of the organization." If there is a leadership structure at the MKSS, it is embodied by a central committee of twenty-five people who attend every meeting and make the major decisions. The task of presiding at meetings is rotated among them and, says Aruna, "all the literate ones take turns keeping the minutes."
From the start, the members decided that they would tackle one or two specific issues every year. Their first major issue was the minimum wage. There is a common definition of "minimum wage" throughout India but, says Aruna, there are different rates for different kinds of labor, skilled and unskilled. A federal law on the minimum wage exists in the country, but every state government can prescribe its own rates. For years now, the MKSS has been fighting for a federal law that would correlate wages with the consumer price index.
In one of MKSS's earliest cases, the Rajasthan state administration promised to look into the wage issue, effectively ending an MKSS-led hunger strike. Officials agreed that all government-sponsored employment would pay the then minimum wage of twenty-two rupees. However, when work began on the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (a government employment scheme), the sarpanch (village headman) refused to pay the minimum wage and twelve workers steadfastly refused to accept the lower wage. Although officials were willing to make full payments off the record, the MKSS pushed to make the payments official in order to establish precedent. When the authorities continued to refuse, the MKSS staged a second hunger strike. After several days, the state government called in 150 policemen to remove the strikers. Aruna estimates that the government spent over 50,000 rupees to dispel a strike that had been called over the issue of 1,600 rupees in wages. Eventually, the Government of India's Department of Rural Government stepped in and forced the Rajasthan state government to pay the full minimum wage, or else it would cancel any further grants to the company in question. As word of these events spread, many workers in other areas began to receive full minimum wages as well.
In 1991, the MKSS opened a grocery store in Bhim as a means of providing the people quality goods at affordable prices. The activists raised capital through loans from villagers, which were paid back in two years. Store prices were kept low because the store sought only a 1 percent net profit and employees worked only for the minimum wage. Since the clientele was not literate, salesmen at first announced the prices of their wares on a microphone to attract buyers. Fearful of losing their customers, the town's other merchants set up a stereo system in front of the store to drown out the hawkers' voices. The plan backfired when more people were drawn to the noise and thus discovered the MKSS store. That first shop was quickly followed by four more, which forced competing merchants to lower their prices and, consequently, eased the local cost of living.
Both the minimum-wage protests and the fair-price shops gained the MKSS a strong following not only among peasants and landless workers but also from the rural middle class.
In the winter of 1994, the work of the MKSS entered a new and groundbreaking phase when the activists initiated the concept of jan sunwais, or public hearings, as a means of fighting corruption and asserting the people's right to information. For centuries, state authorities had been victimizing the people through acts of graft, extortion, nepotism, and arbitrariness. The people had suffered all of this in silence for the most part, not having tools to fight the system, even as political leaders, reform-minded officials, and social activists emerged now and then to try to fight on their behalf. Lacking a systemic approach to fight corruption, previous campaigns against corruption in the area had fizzled out as suddenly as they had appeared.
The Constitution of India provides for an impressive array of basic and inalienable rights. These include the right to equal protection under the law; the right to equality before the law; the right to freedom of speech and information; and the right to life and personal liberty. There is no explicit mention, however, of a right to information or even a right to freedom of the press. The right to information has instead been read into the constitutional guarantees that are part of the chapter on fundamental rights. In the executive branch of the Government of India, the dominant culture has been one of secrecy and stubborn denial to citizens of access to information. For years, citizen's groups fought legal battles for the exercise of this right and there were also attempts to modify the Official Secrets Act to incorporate an individual's right to information, but all to no avail. Moreover, the issue was something only politicians and the urban elite discussed. In 1994, however, MKSS raised the issue of the right-to-information for the first time at the grass-roots level.
The issue was ignited by an old man's request for assistance in collecting wages that he claimed were long past due. In response, MKSS activists went to the block development office to look up his records. There they unearthed disturbing evidence of corruption in the funding and execution of relief-related public works projects. They meticulously recorded the pertinent information. These discoveries led MKSS to initiate a series of jan sunwais, or public hearings, so that this information could be publicly shared, allowing villagers to voice out whatever evidence they had concerning corruption and giving public officials a chance to defend themselves. The first jan sunwai was held on December 2,1994, in the village of Kot Kirana in the Pali district of Rajasthan. At that time, elections for the panchayat, the elective local body for a village or a small group of villages, were scheduled for the following month.
Before the jan sunwai, the MKSS shared the information collected from the government office and constantly reminded the people that their attendance was vital to its success. They rented a tent, a microphone, and even a video camera with which to document the hearing. The jan sunwai was open to all and was chaired by an outsider. An impartial panel composed of lawyers, activists, academics, and journalists was also present.
At the first hearing, Aruna and her companions presented the information they had gathered, including the names of workers on the muster rolls for various projects, the amounts of money purportedly paid to them as wages, and details of various materials claimed to have been used in the construction. People were astounded to hear their names being called out as having worked on a particular project and came forward to testify that they had never been at the work site. Other names were those of people long dead, while still others were unfamiliar to everyone. When bills for construction materials and labor were read aloud, the people learned that certain buildings in the area had been listed as completely finished, although in reality they were missing doors, windows, and roofs. Two officials were implicated, a panchayat secretary and a junior engineer. Both of them were connected to the erstwhile deputy speaker of the state assembly. He was worried about the implications the scandal would have on his future political prospects. He also wanted to protect the two, as they were sources of illegal graft for the politicians in the area.
Two other hearings were held that same month in various parts of Rajasthan. Several hundred villagers, half of them women, took part in them but they were notable for the absence of officials. Officials did, however, attempt to interfere, in part by issuing threats against villagers who participated. In an enquiry instituted as a result of these hearings, held under the shade of a tree, twenty-four sarpanches from surrounding villages arrived and tried to disrupt the proceedings. One of them even tore the shirt of a villager who was testifying. This failed to stop the inquiry and it continued after having been shifted indoors.
The fifth hearing, held in April 1995 in the Bhilwara district, differed from the earlier ones in two aspects. First, it was the first to be conducted jointly with the newly elected representatives of the panchayat. And, second, it took place soon after the chief minister in the state assembly announced that both the ordinary people and the elected representatives would have access to all records related to development projects. At that hearing, villagers pointedly asked two government officials about payments they had extorted from them as beneficiaries of a certain program. The people also exposed as fake certain bills and vouchers for materials allegedly used for recent construction projects in their village.
The government of Rajasthan spends approximately US$200 million a year on public works. In the public hearings, people learned that their villages and districts were supposed to possess schoolhouses, toilets, health clinics, roads, and wells-all of which had been paid for with government funds. None of these buildings or improvements, however, existed in a finished state, if indeed they existed at all. Moreover, despite records to the contrary, relief services in times of drought and famine had never arrived. The people began to ask questions, calling for audits and legal action. Several guilty officials found themselves compelled to return money they had embezzled and to apologize to the people. In many cases, district officials requested to be transferred to other areas. In the face of this alarming turn of events, the state panchayat secretary launched a sit-down strike demanding that the authorities deny all further requests for information. The public hearings had suddenly become a statewide issue.
The jan sunwais typically drew from 500 to 1,500 people and provided a forum in which once-voiceless poor men and women could have their voices heard. The hearings empowered them. But it was not only the poor who came to the hearings. The middle classes, too, for whom corruption has always been an important issue, also spoke up to demand honesty and efficiency in the use of public funds.
Through the jan sunwais, the MKSS made four demands of the state government: (1) transparency, i.e., the public display of all documents pertaining to government-funded development projects; (2) accountability, i.e., fixing responsibility upon those who have defrauded the people; (3) redress, i.e., the return of defrauded funds so that the money can be used for what was intended; and (4) people's audit, i.e., the regular perusal by citizen-appointed auditors of government accounts for anomalies and graft.
In April 1995, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the chief minister of Rajasthan, made a surprise announcement in the state legislative assembly. For a fee, he said, any citizen in his state would be able to obtain photocopies of official documents pertaining to local development projects. Aruna and her fellow activists pressured the government for a full year to implement this promise. By April 1996, however, there was still no action and officials in Rajasthan, unwilling to do anything that would put their careers at risk, continued to refuse requests for records in defiance of the chief minister's announcement.
In response, the MKSS decided to launch a dharna, or sit-in agitation. For this event they chose Beawar, a small town strategically located in the center of Rajasthan.
The state government tried to preempt the dharna the very day it began by issuing an order allowing for the inspection of official documents for a fee, but not the right to make photocopies. The MKSS argued that unless official photocopies were made, the data could not be accurately delivered to the people or used at hearings, due to possible copying errors.
Months before the sit-in, MKSS activists had visited approximately three hundred villages to inform people of their plans and to make two requests: first, that the people spend four days at the dharna; and, second, that each house donate a kilo and a half of grain. Now, with two thousand kilos of grain at their disposal, the activists were prepared to wait out the government. Their preparations proved prophetic. For the next forty days, hundreds of people from all social and political classes, including professionals, trade unionists, and reporters, descended upon Beawar to join the dharna. They suffered the heat of the tent as they listened to speeches and joined in chanting slogans and songs. The people of Beawar donated food and money and even opened their houses to the protesters so that they could bathe. Small vendors gave vegetables and milk, and farmers arrived from the adjacent villages with sacks of wheat. Volunteers offered to cook and to serve water and even to take photographs. Even the poorest villagers gave whatever money they could spare.
The resulting atmosphere was that of a fair, with poetry readings and dances interspersed with discussions and calls for a law granting the right to information. Newspapers ran stories of ordinary citizens asking why they had been denied this right for so long and demanding action from the government. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), reporting afterwards, "praised the MKSS activists for their discipline, courtesy, the simplicity of their lifestyles, their lack of political ambition, and the authenticity of their motives." An editorial in the Economic Times declared: "A grass-roots movement for transparency in one of Rajasthan's most backward regions rubbishes the notion of reforms being an urban, middle-class concern."
Forty days after the dharna began, the Rajasthan government issued a statement saying it had decided to establish a committee to draft the law within the next two months. The MKSS and other organizations took this promise at face value and ended the dharnas.
After the first dharna, leading journalists who had witnessed it, including the director of the Press Council of India, decided to launch a national campaign around the nucleus of the local MKSS campaign. The council took it upon itself to draft and push for the enactment of "right to know" legislation at the national level and also to support local peoples' struggles for the right to information. Meanwhile, committed civil servants based at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie had already organized a national workshop of officials and activists to draft legislation for the same purpose.
Working with the draft from Mussorrie, the Press Council of India wrote its own bill, which it finalized in a meeting in 1996 chaired by Justice P. B. Savant. People who attended the meeting included Ajit Bhattacharji, director of the Press Institute; editors of all the country's leading English- and Hindi-language newspapers; retired justices and the serving attorney general; activists and intellectuals, including Medha Patkar and B. G. Verghese (a Magsaysay awardee); civil servants such as the chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh; and politicians such as ex-prime minister of India V. P. Singh, Digvijay Singh, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, and many others. Duly introduced, the Press Council Bill was sent to all sitting members of Parliament, the prime minister, and the chief ministers of all states.
As reported by Harsh Mander and Abha Joshi in a report for CHRI, "The draft legislation affirmed the right of every citizen to information from any public body. Information was defined as any fact relating to the affairs of the public body and included any of the records relating to its affairs. The right to information included inspection, taking notes and extracts and receiving certified copies of the documents." A significant provision in the draft defines as a "public body" any "company, corporation, society, trust, form or a co-operative society, owned or controlled by private individuals and institutions whose activities affect the public interest."
Meanwhile, in Rajasthan, MKSS waited for confirmation of the chief minister's promise that government documents would be made public. When a report on the matter was finally issued, it was declared secret. It could not, therefore, be made public. The activists began their second major dharna in Jaipur on May 2, 1996.
Donations of food and money poured in once more and the event was as well attended as the sit-ins of the previous year. Once again the government tried to stop the activists. This time it went after the SWRC, sending police and inspecting authorities to Bunker Roy's organization four times based on the allegation that MKSS was using money meant for the SWRC. Within two weeks, the SWRC presented its financial records of the past ten years, completely detailing the use of all grants it had received. Bunker Roy also yielded his own financial records for inspection. All was in order and the accusations were withdrawn.
After fifty-three days, Rajasthan's deputy chief minister announced that the dharna had been baseless and that six months earlier the state government had already recognized the people's right to make photocopies of documents related to panchayat institutions. No explanation was given as to why the order had been kept a secret. Despite the apparent deception, the MKSS and other people's organizations welcomed the state government's declaration and promptly set about teaching people how to avail themselves of this right.
Aruna and Nikhil Dey describe what happened next in their case study, "From Information to Accountability: Reclaiming Democracy":
The procuring of the amended Panchayat Raj rules entitled people to access Panchayat accounts and procure certified copies. Armed with this, the MKSS began the second phase of Jan Sunwais. Even with a legal entitlement to procure copies within four days, it took the MKSS months to access the information. . . .
There were no provisions of penalties for non-compliance. Therefore, the MKSS had to mobilise interested people in order to have the law enforced. The dissemination of information and verification was even more charged after certified copies were obtained. . . . Every bill, voucher, muster roll, and every entry in the records was received with curiosity, suspicion, and an interest in details. People showed patience, a willingness to wait, to know, to verify, and to counter mis-representation. . . .
The Jan Sunwai at Kukarkheda on January 9th 1998 was watched with great interest by the entire area. . . . The Sarpanch was a woman called Basanta Devi who, backed by her family, assumed aggressive postures in the beginning and refused to part with the records. An erstwhile teacher at a primary school, she only succumbed when she realised that it would be worse if she did not give them. Between her and her father-in-law, a retired teacher, they began lobbying with the MKSS to not make it a "public" hearing as it would lead to loss of face. The MKSS took a clear stand that embezzlement of people's money is an offence for which the Government and the voters of the Panchayat will decide on the course of action. Eventually, the MKSS could only promise to not register a First Information Report (FIR) with the police, if she returned the amount embezzled, or took responsibility to get it returned.
In a historic Jan Sunwai, the Sarpanch of Kukarkheda publicly returned 50,000 rupees and promised to return 25,000 in two subsequent monthly instalments. This would cover the 100,000 rupees which had been proved through the documents and public depositions as having been defrauded from the Panchayat. She sat through the daylong proceedings, as scores of people came to make depositions about false names on muster rolls, fudging of bills, and so on. The whole area was buzzing with the news. "Laloo or Jayalalitha did not return stolen money, but Basanta Devi has." A wave of excitement and hope that matters can be set right resulted in a palpable feeling of empowerment.
The local district administration was pulverized. Imminent fears of the system being upset gripped them. Emergency meetings were held in Bhim, the block headquarters. All sarpanches were summoned and told, "on no account should you return money. That is an acceptance of guilt. You must keep quiet. Let them file complaints. . . . We are the ones who will conduct the enquiries, and nothing will come of it." As for Basanta Devi, she was severely admonished, asked not to return the balance of fifty thousand rupees she had promised to deposit and was in fact told to withdraw the 50,000 rupees she had paid up.
Meanwhile, the sarpanches of Surajpura and Rawatmal also paid up amounts of 114,000 rupees and 147,000 rupees, respectively, as fallout from another public hearing held ten days later. V. P. Singh, former prime minister of India, who, when he was in office, tried to have a Right-to-Information Law passed, also attended this public hearing along with eminent journalists, civil servants, researchers, social activists, and respected citizens.
Ten years after its founding, the MKSS still has no single leader. Only six of its workers receive salaries, all of them at the minimum-wage level. In trying to explain the MKSS's beliefs, Aruna Roy says that she and her colleagues take ideas from a number of different people-from Marx and Gandhi to Confucius. The notion of collective leadership is Marxist, while a commitment to a simple lifestyle is Gandhian. From Gandhi also comes the idea that a leader must be self-effacing, so that the people can believe they have done everything for themselves. Many people have contacted the MKSS and asked to join. Instead of recruiting them, MKSS encourages these volunteers to set up their own organizations. Aruna and the others point out that the right to information is not an MKSS issue but an issue for every citizen.
Following MKSS's example, other states have held their own successful jan sunwais. In one case, a young man named Threpan Singh from Uttar Pradesh submitted a list of people from his district who needed employment. When an official informed him that seven hundred employment cards had already been issued to people in the district, Singh went home and found that none of the villagers had ever heard of such a card, much less received one. Today, his organization, Chetna Andolan, is doing the same work in Uttar Pradesh that the MKSS began in Rajasthan, i.e., mobilizing people through information.
Having dealt with politicians and bureaucrats for many years, Aruna Roy can say with certainty, "Politicians have their own agenda. They are neither with you nor against you. They are with you only if you fit in their agenda. The bureaucracy is by culture non-sharing and secretive. The politicians and the bureaucracy have created their own nexus to deny access to the common people." She has learned that "politics is a game of power" and that to be able to bring about social change one has to understand the larger political context and to see the interrelationship between social and political change.
Through the years, the MKSS has also made its voice heard on human rights and women's issues. As Aruna puts it, "We cannot dissociate ourselves from them because you can't say that you fight for minimum wages but not fight violence against women. In any case the MKSS membership is 60 percent women." The MKSS has spoken up against cases of rape, which Aruna believes is an assertion of men's power over women rather than simply an instance of perverted sexual gratification. The MKSS encourages victims of rape to speak out. In one large rally against rape in Rajasthan in which MKSS participated, for example, nineteen poor women declared before the assembled crowds that they had been forcibly raped.
Of all her achievements in the last twenty-five years, Aruna Roy is proudest of the fact that her work continues to thrive upon honesty and transparency, without compromising her values. Not one to rest on her laurels, she continues to work for the promulgation of the people's right to information from the grass roots. "Our right to information leads us to the right to govern ourselves. It's the beginning of a hard struggle," she once said. "Manzil abhi bahut door hain. (The goal is quite far off.) I assure you we shall succeed."
There are those who question the real impact that the work of Aruna and the MKSS have had on the national level, pointing out that Rajasthan is only a small part of India. To that she says, "We can't all be Gandhi or Mao. We have to work in a limited area. However, we have to understand how to relate our small work with big issues. Increasing this understanding is very important." Nevertheless, MKSS's impact has been felt far beyond Rajasthan. In the years following its initial foray into the struggle for the people's right to know, several Indian states passed right-to-information laws, including Rajasthan itself in 2000. And, more significantly, after many trials and false starts, and after many attempts by politicians to derail or defang the proposed legislation, in October 2005 the Right to Information Act took effect in all of India.
Although Aruna and her husband Bunker have not worked together for years, their unconventional marriage remains strong. She says, "It is a good marriage because in some ways it is not a marriage. The two of us are very different people but we have had a very good relationship because we are very honest with each other. We also criticize each other a lot. He is a very fair and sensible person. He has given me space. And I give him space. It's an equal relationship, a true relationship."
She credits the rural people of Rajasthan for the lessons she has learned in her twenty-five years of work there. She recently told an Indian journalist, "Many collectives of the poor people struggling for change gave us the ideas and commitment to bring about meaningful change. I owe my ideas to the clarity of others, my courage to being with people who confront injustice with fearlessness and equanimity, my hope to the persistence and resilience of men and women struggling to get themselves heard, my generosity to the poor family that shared its last roti (bread) with me, and my sense of well-being to the many who have supported me in difficult moments of my life."
Mander, Harsh, and Abha Singhal Joshi. "The Movement for the Right to Information in India: People's Power for the Control of Corruption." Paper presented at the Conference on Pan- Commonwealth Advocacy, Harare, Zimbabwe, January 1999.
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. "The Right to Know, The Right to Live: People's Struggle in Rajasthan and the Right to Information." Working paper, MKSS, Rajasthan, India, 1996.
"The Movement for the Right to Information in India." Working paper, National Centre for Advocacy Studies, Pune, Maharashtra, India, July 1999.
Roy, Aruna. "From Bureaucracy to People's Movement." Lokayan Bulletin, January 13, 1996.
______. Interview by James R. Rush and Lorna Kalaw-Tirol. Tape recording. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila, September 1, 2000.
______. "Learning with Equality: Redefining Gurus." Humanscape, May 2000. Also published in The Hindu, May 28, 2000.
______. "We Can't All Be Gandhi or Mao." Interview by Kamala Bora. Rediff.com, July 26, 2000. Available from http://www.rediff.com/news/2000/jul/26award1/htm
Roy, Aruna, and Nikhil Dey. "From Information to Accountability: Reclaiming Democracy." MKSS Case Study. Rajasthan, India: Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, 2001. Available from http://www.freedominfo.org/case/mkss/bibliography.htm
Various interviews and correspondence with individuals familiar with Aruna Roy and her work; other primary documents.