We are familiar with corruption in
high places. But what about corruption in low places? For example, how much
of the development aid earmarked for Asia's rural poor every year actually
reaches the poor? Huge sums are involved. In India, the government spends
some $200 million annually for rural assistance in the state of Rajasthan
alone. This is where ARUNA ROY and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS,
Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants) have been helping
poor villagers find out where the money goes. They do so by asserting the
people's right to a single powerful weapon: information.
As a junior officer in India's prestigious Administrative Service, ARUNA ROY
was exposed to her country's diverse, poverty-stricken village world. She
learned that she could not easily penetrate it, or change its ways, as an
elite official. After seven years, she resigned from the Service and in 1974
moved to Rajasthan. There she joined the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC),
a voluntary agency led by her husband and engaged in village-level
development projects on health, education, gender, and livelihood. Her
experience at SWRC convinced her that poor people must be the agents of
their own economic and social improvement and, moreover, that political
action is fundamental to their success.
With this in mind, ROY and some fellow activists formed MKSS in 1990.
Headquartered in the village of Devdungri, Rajasthan, their group accepted
no external funds and spurned the trappings of prosperous NGOs. Living as
the poor lived and eating as the poor ate, ROY and her comrades began
assisting villagers to assert themselves against the local power structure.
Using traditional forms of protest such as hunger strikes and sit-ins, MKSS-led
villagers insisted that local people hired for state projects be paid the
legal minimum wage. They forced a land-grabbing feudal lord to return
encroached-upon properties to the entitled poor. Most provocatively, they
held open-air public hearings at which official records of state development
projects were exposed to the scrutiny of the intended beneficiaries.
Shocking revelations followed: of toilets, schoolhouses, and health clinics
recorded as paid for but never constructed; of improvements to wells,
irrigation canals, and roads that remained noticeably unimproved; of famine
and drought relief services never rendered; and of wages paid to workers who
had been dead for years. Of the many development projects pursued by MKSS in
Rajasthan, said one member, "not one has come out clean." Such revelations
embarrassed culpable officials and led to apologies and investigations and
even to the return of stolen funds.
Information was the key to every success: bills, vouchers, employment rolls.
People have the right to audit their leaders, MKSS said. Thus, its campaign
of public hearings also became a campaign for transparency in government.
"Our money, our records," chanted villagers.
But officials were loathe to open their books. This prompted ROY and MKSS to
launch a series of rallies culminating in a fifty-three-day protest in
Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, to compel the state to make its
development-fund records public. The movement soon took on India-wide
dimensions as the media and prominent intellectuals and political reformers
joined in. As a result, right-to-information laws have now been passed in
Rajasthan and three other states. A comprehensive national law is pending
before the Government of India.
ROY and her colleagues practice the transparency they preach, accounting
scrupulously for their own expenditures to rural neighbors. At fifty-four,
ROY remains driven. If an issue or a situation disturbs her, she says, "I am
not comfortable until I do something about it."
In electing ARUNA ROY to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for
Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her empowering Indian
villagers to claim what is rightfully theirs by upholding and exercising the
people's right to information.