Aruna Roy

(Public address at 5.30 p.m. on May 10, 2010 at Kerala Sahitya Academy auditorium, organised by Jananeethi Institute, Thrissur)

"You know that India is described as having two bits – India and Bharath. India is for people like you and me India is for citizens, India is for people who speak English, India is for people who access the law and Bharath is that part of India even today has only subjects, there is no access to law, there is not access to English there is no rights. You are just there at the mercy of all the legal systems.."

I want to begin by thanking jananeethi for having me here today and welcoming me inspite of the odds of having very little time and constraints of another major workshop at Kila. What brings me here to you today is the fact that the last 40 years of my life I have been working with and living with people who have always interested me in a very positive sense. I’ve always felt since a child the difference between people who are privileged like me and people who have no privileges is very large. My interest in my work did not begin with a theoretical understanding but with an emotional need from when I was very young. I remember in my youth, my grandparents used to live in Chennai and was brought in the summer holidays to see my grandfather, and I remember that there used to be this custom of people who vow to go to Tiruppathi and roll all the way. I used to see a man with wounds all over his body and be very upset, I used to insist that my grandfather give him his shirt. My grandfather used to say he will not wear it as he has to roll anyway. My father and mother gave me a certain sense of values that is if you feel strongly about something then you must do something about it. Because if you really feel bad and don’t do anything about it then we have this great anomaly that is the Indian middle class where year after year, day after day ,we are so concerned about this country but we don’t act. I think if we turned around and looked just before the period of independence the Indian middle class was actively involved, whether you agree with the methods they used or did not use, in a series of actions which led to our independence. But immediately after independence people of my bourgeois family, in which most of us are born, the intention and ambition of most families became “how do we get on with it?” or “do our children go to foreign universities?” or “do they become IAS officers?” or “how do they become experts or specialists?”, “how do they become doctors or engineers?” and the business of how the country ran, or what the governments did ,became a secondary issue. We had this belief that somehow it would run and that somebody would run it, that our role was over and now we needed to get what we could out of this nation state. I think what the Right To Information actually has done for the middle class is that it has shaken them out of their complacence. But it has also given them a tool which is not revolutionary in one sense, which does not require them to go sit on the street and agitate but use a tool nevertheless to ask very critical questions of governance, of status quo and disturb the status quo. So in a sense if I go to a town, as I have come to Thrissur, I feel that there is an obligation on the part of urban India to use this Act much more than it does. And for the number of issues that you raise and are irritated by in governance in issues which are there on the road this Act can really lead you into contributing for the country.

How did it all begin? It began when poor peasants and workers in central Rajasthan in the 90’s started asking for minimal wages. The govt of Rajasthan runs public works even today though most of it has come under NREGA and in these public works there is always a short fall between the statutory works and the minimum wage and what is paid to them, so they wanted the minimum wage and they were told that they are liars, that their records say they didn’t work. So it was an agitation that began to see the records to prove that they had worked so that they could get their minimum wage that led to the Right To Information Act and the campaign as we know it today was born. So when we asked to see the records of that Panchayat we were told that we can’t see them as they are secret documents. Any muster roll where the names are entered once is a bill and the bill once it has gone to the treasury is a secret document and we could not see it. We all knew that there were bogus names on the muster role but unless u could see them how could you prove that they were bogus names? So if only 10 people worked, there were 20 peoples names and so they were siphoning off of money. In this process, to cut a long story short, we unearthed factual data when taken to people shocked them. We took muster roles out of govt offices by copying them with a pencil and took them to the people, and in 1994 when we read it out there were dead peoples names on the muster rolls, people who had migrated from Rajasthan many years ago were on the muster rolls, there were names of people like me who don’t even know how to do hard labour who are having other jobs. So the population got terribly irate and the anger and angst made them go out and demand that that wanted to see the documents and they framed the concept of Right to Information that’s why the Indian law is different from the law in Mexico, the law in Australia, the law in the U.S, the law in U.K, the law anywhere else because the need for the law and the framing of the law was done by the real people of India, the people of Bharath. You know that India is described as having two bits – India and Bharath. India is for people like you and me, India is for citizens, India is for people who speak English, India is for people who access the law and Bharath is that part of India which even today has only subjects, there is no access to law, there is no access to English, there are no rights. You are just there at the mercy of all the legal systems. It is the subjects of India who irate and angry with their condition who have given us our right. They’ve also made us realise that if the constitution give us sovereignty, calls us the sovereign, it vests not with the elected representatives, not with the chief minister, not with our IAS officers, not with our chief secretaries to the government, but with you and me and we transfer this power to them so that they rule India as good servants and we have forgotten it so the sovereignty that is vested in us through right to information, because it has conferred on us some phenomenal rights and if we understand those right we act from there, so when these people agitated for getting an entitlement to see the records we had a series of conflicts with the govt of Rajasthan and then we sat on a very long dharna in a place called Bihavar in 1996; for 40 days we sat in the middle of the market place and the campaign grew. I remember the first day we went and sat there the people asked why have you come? What does it have to do with poor people but as they sat there and as we sat there, as they kept hearing us they understood that it is a vital right. Even for you right to food it is a vital right you want right to health it is a vital right you want right to anything it is a vital right. It is a transformatory right it is the right that transforms that right into action and therefore the importance of this right was seen by the whole town. We collected Rs 86000 in cash we are not an NGO, we don’t get funds; we exist on donations given be individuals, we don’t exist on foreign money, so we are not that kind of NGO. We define ourselves as a non party political group. There was a young boy who used to work in the morning and study in the afternoon, he used to give us Rs 2 everyday, the chaiwala used to give us chai, the videographer did free videography we got free water and vegetables and the people who came to sit on the dharna brought 4 kilos of grain. We ate up 20 quintals of grain in those 40 days so you can imagine how many people who came, a merchant opened up one of his shops, which was unbuilt and asked us to cook there. So he gave us a place that was free, it somehow brought the spirit of democracy alive. People started feeling that if we do not have the right to see how we are governed, India will be a terrible place so it grew and became a national campaign to peoples Right to Information of which Mr M. P Parameswaran was also a member in the initial stages and many others were members it was decided that the law shall be drafted by the Press Council of India under Justice P.V Sawant who then invited people from all over the country including intellectuals, peasants, workers, women activists, health activists got together and debated what kind of a law we wanted. He also invited politicians and ex-bureaucrats, they all came. At the end of the debate, Susheela who had come with me from the village was asked, “what do you know about Right to Information and why have you come?” She said, and these are the kind of people we dismiss as people who can’t run the country or can’t contribute to governance, “I send my son to the market place with 10 Rs, when he comes back I ask for accounts. This country spends crores of rupees in my name won’t I ask for my accounts? It is our money, therefore, it is our accounts.” Powerful statements have come from so many people and these are the people who have really made it possible for India to get the Act because though Justice Sawant drafted the Act and listened to people’s voices, consulted them and made the law, without continuous struggle on the streets, Right to Information would not have come. As the campaign grew, scientists joined, lawyers joined, journalists joined, members of the bar and bench joined, when they saw without this, you cannot get corruption out of the system nor can you get arbitrary governance out of the system. Corruption you all know about, every day there is a scam. Recently there was a scam in Delhi of which reports have come of an IAS officer who had tons of gold secreted because of mismanagement and siphoning of government money. But you know that even arbitrary governance is because of lack of transparency. If you are not transparent you can misgovern and most glaring example has been Gujarat. If you look at the misgovernance in Gujarat and what happened in 2002 and of the genocide and the mismanagement that has led to misinformation to really condition a population to behave differently then we know how important facts are. If wrong facts are fed to people over and over again then you come to wrong decisions and you have a mindset which works differently.

What does right to information give us? First of all under the Right to Information Act anyone can go and ask for information, you do not have to prove your identity, you can go and in an ordinary piece of paper you can apply for information with Rs 10 either through money order or various ways. Once you pay Rs 10 you can inspect the files, and they must provide you space and date for the inspection. There is a reporter from The Hindu has gone to the Ministry of Rural Development and has looked at papers which have brought out revolutionary data. Now the point is, you can go and see the files after which you can ask for authenticated photocopies of the data and they must give it to you within 30 days. If they don’t give it to you within 30 days the person must give a fine of Rs 250 from his own pocket. Up to Rs 25000 fine can be levied on that individual and now we wanted that to be entered into their confidential report and be marked negatively. But many people have been fined including a senior director in the ministry of development and seniors officers as well. Paying Rs 25000 from your own pocket is ignominy and shame for anyone who has some self respect. So that is the point, that there is a penalty provision, without this penalty provision no information would ever be released as they would be implicated. During the dharna, a lawyer came to us and said that it is a very good issue but we would never get the information. So we asked him why not and he said that your asking a rotten system to pull its heart out and place it in front of you. So the Right to Information requires the person to give you authentic information even if it goes against him or her, making the penalty clause very important. Information is defined not only as paper, it covers electronic information, it covers videography and films, it covers materials. Like if you suspect a road is not being built properly you can ask for a section of the road to be cut and given to you. You can inspect grains of a ration shop. It covers a whole range of information which you can access. It also has the provisions of what can’t be seen. We can’t see those things under the Act which our MLAs and MPs can not see. We can see everything and it empowers us to see what our MLA’s and MP’s can see. I remember there was a huge debate about the positive and negative list and Dr N.C Saxena who is an IAS officer came up with this fantastic formulation. He came up and said, don’t waste your time, what an MP can see we can also as they are only our representatives, we are the power. What a servant can see, his master can see. So there is an override which says not withstanding anything what the MLA can see you and I can see. With this kind of power we should use it but nobody really files an application under the RTI and then we complain. It is only us people from the middle class who do not use it. It is being used by 100s and 1000s of applications which have been filed in India. So there is a punishment and another override which says that even if it is a security related matter if it affects corruption or human rights then you can access it. The commission can rule that it be released to you in public interest. We have all these clauses and must be used even in restricted areas like for instance Manipur, Chattisgarh and many other places.

What has it done for us in the last five years? Apart from the fact that it has enabled us to get information out into the public Act there is a Section 4 which says that all government organisations or govt. funded organisations should have a board which says who is the public information officer of that building in what room they sit and the basic function. It may not be important to this organisation but if you go to a Panchayats or municipal organisation it becomes vital to know the budget, how much money is spent and how much work is due, how many people are doing what work. How many jeeps or vehicles run in this office. One collector rang up from MP to Delhi and said a chaiwala has filed an application saying ‘he wanted to see my log book. Do I have to show it to him?’ The answer was ‘yes’ as it is run by money given to you by the government. Many people have got their rations by just applying their right to information to PDS dealers saying I want to see your record. On the registers of the PDS many names were entered but on the ration card it was blank. I only need these 2 documents to have a criminal case against the PDS owner or operator for non supply. We’ve gone to hospitals to know the list of medicines they have for poor people and also see the stock register and bring a complainant who says “I came 4 days ago, my son being bitten by a snake and you said go and buy the serum from a shop outside and there was none there. I had to take him to a hospital 20 kms away to get it.” And the register shows serum but doctor says that there is no serum. So where did the serum go? For people it is a matter of life and death. Recently in this whole business of Bt brinjal and the genetic modification of the brinjal they are saying there will be no side effects. It is being done by a company and the same company is doing research on it to find out if it will affect us and the same company will sell it. Look at the vested interest pattern. When they asked for information they were first refused it but they won their appeal. So they got a segment of the information out to know what kind of side effects would have. Some of my friends say, if it is genetically modified then it can damage our genes to such an extent that our children will be born deformed. There is a 50 % chance of ugly deformations. So when this came into the public domain, there was pressure on the Minister for environment Jairam Ramesh to have public hearings. He has had 6 to 8 public hearing, many people including scientists and technologists. Once the information was out these people came into the battle and said that these activists were correct. This will really impact generations to come so that now there is a moratorium on Bt brinjal. This is not a small battle, it is a huge battle won if you realise what it implies. These battles are only possible if there is legitimate factual information out in the public domain. The latest is the chief justice of India feels the courts should be out of the domain of Right to Information. It is interesting to note that every power group says that every one else should be under the RTI but not me. So the Chief Justice was very upset when there was a ruling by the Central Information Commission that the Justices will have to declare their assets. So the Supreme Court then went in appeal to the high court, which is subordinate, and they lost in the high court. That was a single bench decision. Then they said there must be a Full Bench decision. The Full Bench also upheld the fact that they must display their asserts. Then they came in appeal to themselves, violating all principles of natural justice. If this is how Supreme Court functions, how will we evaluate the judicial system? All of us are intelligent people, but we must now learn that if it is so, then what is the role judiciary for justice for rich people, for poor people, for fairness, for interpretation of Constitution, if the Supreme Court argues that it is above law. So the Chief Justice wrote a letter to the Prime Minister to amend the Right to Information Act. So again for the 5th time the DOPD said we must amend it. So a couple who are lawyers in Delhi, they filed an RTI application to see the letters by the Chief Justice and the Prime Minister and Mrs Sonia Gandhi. This happened as there was an NDTV program that says there was a difference of opinion between the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi. When they applied , Mrs Gandhi said, ‘do not amend the Act, implement it’, the Prime Minister said ‘we must amend the Act to reject frivolous and vexatious applications’. What a subjective definition? Who is going to define what is frivolous? A vexatious application? A Muslim who has been badly treated in Gujarat wants to know some information, it will be a ‘vexatious’ information. The other thing they don’t want to give is file notings. The file has two parts, the right side has all papers which come as letters to ministries and the left side is reasons for taking decisions. But in the definition, it includes ‘all counsel/advice leading to decision is public information’. The Central Commission ruled that all file notings must be shown. No babu (Hindi term for bureaucrats ) wants to show the left side of the file. The chief Justice has written to the Prime Minister, and that is also out. This is not sensation. We must know how these people govern us. Why is it that certain things are done and certain things are not? Even people who fly into Kerala, I want to know why coming into Kerala is so expensive. Why a flight to Kerala is so expensive while if you fly from Delhi to Bangkok it is cheaper? Why is it so? People of Kerala should know. There are millions of examples. Today it is about gas supply, about roads, health, violations, killings - it is about everything. Vrinda Grover, very eminent lawyer in Delhi used the RTI to unearth the reasons for killings by the border security force of 15 people 20 years ago. She has gotten justice for these families. For so many years without justice she has been able to establish that there were killings which are unfair, illegal and establish the fact that so far those families who have been living under the shadow of having been party to some kind of nefarious activity proved innocent. So there are a number of things enabled by the RTI.

The RTI, as Nikhil Chakravarthy said, when he came to us, who is a eminent journalist who refused the Padma Vibhushan as he did not want to accept it from a Government, he thought it was unethical. His name is synonymous with ethical journalism. He died about 5 or 6 years ago at the ripe old age of 85 or 86. He was the Director General of Prasar Bharthi and has written and edited a magazine called “Mainstream” .He came to Rajasthan, while we were agitating and he said don’t think that this is a small battle. This is the second war of independence. The first was a war against foreigners who ruled us. This is a war against our own people who are rulers to know how this country is run and what we should do about it. I think for each one of us the Right to Information Act is an important Act to use. It is a small thing that enables us to ask questions legitimately and legally and has changed power relationships between being the ordinary citizen and the power elite where to ask a question they are beaten up. Now apart from evasion they have no other answer but somehow now RTI officers are also being killed. In Pune , Bihar, Jharkhand , Thane … RTI officers were being killed. So the system is reacting with violence. If, as citizens, we do not want violence we must use legitimate processes that there are non violent ways of asking questions, getting answers and establishing accountability to make this country a better place. It is being used in electoral process and there are numbers of people using the RTI and winning elections without deceit, without spending money and paying for vote.

While we were fighting for right to information we also revived the right to employment, which is also known as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. We argued with politicians and lobbied with them saying that if you do not give the right to work, you are going into tremendous violence as we have gone beyond the edge of poverty. If you do not want to create Maoism as a poor person will fight and the problem is that if you use violence then there is nothing one will have as a counter argument. But again and again we have seen that violence has not led to a better form of governance. Now there is nothing left but the Gandhian form of peaceful non violence resistance for people who want to live in the paradigm of a constitutional India today. So we lobbied with the political parties. The first UPA promised us in the manifesto that if they won they would give us the NREGA. And when they won they gave us the National Common Minimum Programme where they promised 100 days employment for every rural household. Honestly I thought we could get the RTI but the employment scheme is absolutely impossible because this country is not totally capitalistic and did not believe in protection of workers. But they say Quixoting, from the famous Don Quixote the Spanish mad man, a series of strange relations they promised us and this programme was a tremendous revolution. The discourse on the mainstream media was on poverty after 20 years. The media was against the NREGA and well known economist called Prof. Bhalla who said on a TV program “give me a sack full of money and I will distribute it to the poor. It is better than the NREGA”. Fortunately there were some rural people who said we do not want your dole and said we want to live in dignity. There were heated arguments but finally we got the Act. This gives some extra ordinary entitlements. For the first time in the history of India, we have an Act that gives to any person in rural India who wants to work as hard labour. Which means it is a justiceable Act which means a job card must be made and you are entitled to apply for work. That work must be given in 15 days time. If not the workers are allowed an unemployment allowance which begins with 25 % of minimum wages. The worker will not get work beyond 5 kms. If so they must be allowed travel allowance. The names and numbers of job cards will be up for everyone to see. I will be entitled, if I am a woman labourer, to a crèche and medical facilities. Once I finish work I may get my wages in 15 days if not I am entitled to compensation. This has revolutionised rural India even rural Kerala. In the use of this Act, has been generated immense amount of real interest in Grama Panchayats in States where it had become defunct. In Rajasthan under NREGA a Panchayat is getting 1 crore as it is demand driven. The law entitles us to ask for as much money as people demand work. The States which have realised this have taken immense amounts of money. In Rajasthan, every Panchayat has spent 1 crore. It has stopped distress migration and children are going to school. They are demanding better development structures. It is the only thing that has stopped food and bread riots. I don’t know if urban India recognises how important it is for India to have this Act. Therefore, the NREGA and its transparency has created huge power struggles. Painting the information outside the Panchayats on the Panchayats board is a huge issue. The moment you start painting people start asking uncomfortable questions. It gives hope that at least in the next generation money that comes in will be used. The reason why there is unrest in Chatthisgarh and Jharkhand is because there is no real development that has reached those places. So in a sense if we have transparency, we have everything. The govt of Rajasthan has recovered crores where they were asked to produce the money defrauded. So more than 7 crores have been returned to the ex chequer. So in a sense poor governance which affects poor people has done a great service. But they have also established for those who are activists that it is possible for us that people can actually, in this dialectic between struggle and advocacy can frame, formulate and fight for a law and they can get it. Only the formulation itself by technical people, but what it should contain is decided by the people and therefore it last. Two quotations before I end, a brilliant political thinker in the Spain , the first he said was why do we have this 2 dimensional rulers in democracy? Our idea in our faith is shot down, our hope is shot down and we end in cynicism and despair further weakening the democracy. But he said what you need for democracy is common sense. People have common sense. In India Mahatma Gandhi travelled to the whole country before he took over the national movement as he listened to people. If you don’t listen to people you will never know what can be done. Both the RTI and the NREGA listened to people. The real definers of these Acts are the people of India. The real concept and idea have come from the people who have their feet firmly rooted and are full of common sense and it is this that will take India forward. Another quotation, one of my favourites, asks what is democracy? Democracy is speaking truth to power, making truth powerful and power truthful. If you manage that then we have a democracy that will deliver. We have ideologies but beyond ideology is ethics. No ethics, then even the ideology betrays itself. Otherwise like the emperor and his new clothes we will live in illusions and delusions and no country’s future can be built on illusions and delusions. So I’ve come to you to share a small ray of hope that perhaps, if we work ethically and fairly, perhaps if we work diligently and with equality and justice, may be India can change.

Transcribed by Bhadra R. Menon

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Our Journey

1991 Jananeethi office inaugurated
1992 - May 13 Registration of Jananeethi Society
1992 December

Formal Inauguration

Initial services included – public adalats (neethimela), free legal aid, legal literacy, mediation & reconciliation and public interest litigation. Started campaign against torture, death penalty, dowry, child labour and trafficking.

1993 Launch of Jananeethi Publication
1994 Women’s Desk
1996 Environmental Advocacy launched
2000 Helpline for women, children and elderly in distress started
Declaration of first litigation-free village in Thichoor in Varavoor Panchayat
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