NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)–Social activist Aruna Roy, founding member of the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information, helped establish a 2005 law making government practices and legal rulings more transparent to the public. Here she discusses why public information is so vitally important to the function of a society and its connection to the anti-corruption movement.

Q: Many see the right-to-information (RTI) movement as the mother of many new social movements we see today.

A: The RTI movement was significant for many reasons. First, it redefined the relationship between the people and the state. It established that there is a continuing engagement between the people, the government and the state, of which people and the state had two different but equally important obligations.

The state had the obligation to inform the people it serves about what it is doing, why it is doing it and how it is doing it.

The people came to understand that in a democracy, governments, government policy and institutions do not run independent of them and so they have a role to educate, monitor and demand changes in policy, programs, the day-to-day running of activities that involve — for want of a better word — "governance."

The RTI also established two more things: One, that social policy and social security are as important to the larger well-being of India as is growth. Second, it established that the right to information is actually a transforming right because it translated all the rights under the Constitution into practice.

Full Participation Challenges

Q: Isn’t ensuring full popular participation difficult?

A: We may never have anything like full participation in absolute terms. But participation in various parts of the process of taking decisions and creating platforms for genuine debate to deepen understanding of issues should be a part of any campaign.

The old argument that has often got framed as a feminist versus non-feminist debate is whether the process is more important than the final outcome, or whether the final outcome is more important than the process. This is a bit like the chicken and egg story. I feel this dialectic is very important for delivering a finished product; however you may want to define it.

Participation arises from the process of people getting space to articulate what they feel is the necessary bottom line of development, or of rights, or of anything else, in a systematic and logical manner. And this information will ultimately be used with understanding, with knowledge, to form instruments of governance.

Very simple things have come out of hours of listening to people’s definitions and understanding their needs during the RTI campaign.

First, there was the fact that you need information up in the public domain visibly. The view that if it was there, just implicitly, that was enough came to be completely put aside. People wanted viewable, transparent governance.

Q: Does this experience inform your approach to the anticorruption Jan Lokpal Bill?

(Ed note: Lokpal is Sanskrit for people’s protector)

A: My approach to a Jan Lokpal is organic. Arguments for a Jan Lokpal are very simple. Because we are trying to set up a body to monitor and oversee the processes that check corruption and the denial of rights to different people, this law, by its very nature, will have to address a large number of issues.

The malaise in the system is red tape, bureaucratic corruption, the denial of equality to people outside the system, the denial, in fact, of their right to question. Creating an edifice that is bigger than the sum of the parts of the solutions we are trying to come up with would be self-defeating. One institution to oversee all three institutions of bureaucracy, judiciary and legislature would be gigantic. And being so gigantic, it will fail in the process of monitoring itself and the three others it is meant to monitor.

My mother, who used to be a student of science and was always preoccupied until she died with physics and mathematics, would always tell me that if there is a really acute problem and the solution proposed for it is very complex, then it will not be a solution. The more simple the solution, the more thought has gone into it. If you haven’t seen the problem in its entirety, you can’t come up with a simple solution.

Moving Forward

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

A: Two things are very important. One is the framing of the Lokpal itself. The other is about corruption in a democracy.

The Lokpal will address the corruption in the system of governance, which if it functioned well will bring down some of the obvious aspects of corruption. But let’s not forget that when we talk of corruption we are also looking at huge amounts of corruption outside government today. Because of the kind of economic stratagems — thanks to the dominant economic paradigm that we have accepted — much of the money and much of the decision-making has shifted from the government to the private sector. Big money and big business have come into the media, into corporations, into nongovernmental groups and many other structures, including professional groups like doctors and the like.

So you actually have to see how democracy can make equality and equal access important norms for every Indian, no matter where he or she is placed.

Given that, I think the need today is for accepting and facing issues centrally and not have these black-and-white — simplistic actually — definitions of corruption. There is also the need for the internalization of ethics, the internalization of the need to share, especially among those who are now madly following their dream of affluence.

Q: What makes you hopeful?

A: If I did not have faith that people can change things, I would pack my bags and leave. There are so many beautiful examples of this, but they never get media attention so we don’t know about them. The challenge is to get those small battles won every day. And I live in the middle of those people. When I see them full of hope, I have absolutely no business to nurture feelings of hopelessness.

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

It would disquiet me as a human being if I cannot speak out about whatever I think is going wrong. I may not be able to do anything about it, but I would need to articulate it. I think that is what keeps me going. I say this with a sense of humility: Change cannot be brought about by one individual or even a set of individuals. But what every set of individuals can contribute is to make that little difference, which together with other efforts can turn many wheels, so that the larger wheel will be forced to turn.

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This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women’s Feature Service. For more articles on women’s issues log on to:

Pamela Philipose is the director of Women’s Feature Service in New Delhi. Previously she was senior associate editor with The Indian Express, a leading national daily in India.

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