Fatigue does not seem to enter the vocabulary of 66-year-old activist, Aruna Roy, given her days of travelling from city to city, and town to town, in her native India. She does admit to slowing down her schedule, but quickly adds that she has found other ways to continue her struggle to attain pro-people legislation that would ensure justice and the well-being of India's marginalized population.
Struggle and Arunya Roy are inseparable. She is one of the main figures behind the Right to Information Act in India, which she and her colleagues succeeding in getting enacted in 2004. Another pro-people legislation she fought for and won was the Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
In 1974, this Chennai-born woman left her cushy government job to join the Social Work and Research Center in Tilonia, in the state of Rajasthan. In 1990, she and associates established the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (a labor and farmers union) in a village in Rajsamand district. Because of the critical need to obtain information, she and her associates formed a National Campaign for the People's Right to Information, an issue she fought for when she was still a member of the National Advisory Council.
Aruna Roy's commitment to helping people was even evident when she was about to be married in 1970. Her future husband, Sanjit Roy, a Barefoot Movement activist agreed not to have children so they would not be held down in their activism. Her full commitment to social issues earned her the recognition of her nation as well as the world. In 2000, she received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for leadership. A decade later, he accepted the Lal Bahadur Shastri National and last year, she made Time magazine's list of the world's most influential people. Three weeks ago, Aruna Roy was in Jakarta after visiting Medan and Makassar to hold discussions on the right to information. She spared some of her busy time to meet with Tempo reporters Purwani Diyah Prabandari, Ririn Agustia and photographers Yosep Arkian. Roy was accompanied by her colleagues, Nikhil Dey and Sawmya Kidambi .
Why did you leave the civil service to take up a life of activism?
I didn't join (the civil service) for the status or power. Then I realized that the civil service worked for the status quo. There was also a lot of corruption. So I left power to really beome powerful, to speak the truth, to fight for the truth, the collective truth, not my truth. To fight with no violence, no guns.
So, you were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi?
Gandhi is a reflection of India.
You said corruption inside the Indian government was very bad?
It's not just corruption, but misuse of power. Emergency was declared when there was no need for emergency. Corruption is multilevel.
How did this movement evolve into a demand for the right to information?
We worked with poor workers and peasants, so we demanded the inimum wage. But they said we couldn't see the records, that it was secret. The movement was begun by poor people, not in the halls, but in a small hut.
And how did the RTI (Right to Information) get started?
It began in Rajasthan in 1992-93. But we were not the first to get the law. The law was first in Taminaru. The national law came in 2005, MKSS, our organization began the struggle. But the NCPR campaign was born. The message spread all over India. So a number of provincial laws came into being. And a bad federal law also came about in 2000.
What do you mean bad?
A terrible law. It was the Freedom of Information Act. It is a very weak act, certified in 2005, because we already had freedom of information under the constitution. So we said we didn't need freedom of information, we need the right to access information.
What did you do to have the law enacted?
We lobbied the political parties asking for the right to information to be passed. The Congress and left parties made promises: if they get to power, they will give us the good law. In 2004, they came to power. They promised better RTI NRIDA, they invited some civil society groups to join the council and became advisors to the government on social policy and on the timplementation of a number of programs and they invited me. That was when the Right to Information Act and the Right to Rural Employment Guarantee Act were passed.
What is that last law?
A hundred days of employment are guaranteed every year for every household at minimum wages, which depends on the provinces. In Rajasthan it's US$3 a day. It is kind of public work within five kilometers from home, building rural roads, hospital, public streets and so forth. This is important because most of these people in this category are women. Many of the men leave the rural areas to work in towns.
What if someone fails to get work?
Any rural citizen can get a job card. So the right to employment is 100 days. The job card the whole record of how many days you work,when you apply, when you get to work, the right to minimum wages. Then there's the right to payment within 15 days, otherwise there is big problem in delaying payment. If you don't get work in 15 days, you will get unemployment allowance. And if you don't get paid in 15 days, you get compensation for delayed payments. There is also the right to transparency which enables the right to an audit. This is why the right to information is so important. This year, there are about 55 million households in India which are guaranteed jobs.
How is this right to information carried out in practice?
Each person can request for information. If this is not given, the person can go to an independent commission which can give the appropriate sentence.
And what is that?
The law says the punishment should be Rupee 250 per day for government officials refusing to provide information and the money is paid from personal accounts.
Can all information including on intelligence and defence be given access through the Right to Information Act?
There are some parts of the rules which are bad, among them the clause saying defense and intelligence communities cannot be accessed. But there is additional regulation: anything related to corruption or human rights violation, the people can still ask for any information.
What has been the biggest problem in obtaining this legislation?
In India there was no transparency because there was official secret act. So the whole culture is not to show anything, not to give any answer not to tell anyone anything.
Have you ever received threats?
One time, there was a land distribution struggle and the landlord beats us up. The intimidation is always there, even now when people have started to use the right to information law. In the last two years, about 15 people have been killed, because they had exposed big scams.
What is the source of these threats?
First, it's opposition at the local level, violence among the local communities. Every society has its mafia, and if you fght against corruption or misuse of power, you are always fighting aginst a mafia, no matter the village, city, state or country. What concerns us more is state violence. The State can declare anybody anti-state. Now there is a new horrible law because of terrorism.
What are you doing to overcome this problem?
Now we are demanding a whistle blower protection law.
How successful has your struggle been so far?
The most fundamental success we have achieved is to get legislation passed. Our biggest problem is how to ensure those laws we fought for will not be changed or weakened. Today, the government and detractors of the Right to Information Act know. Imagine if millions of Indians use this law.
No. 34/12, April 18, 2012