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July 26, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ Aruna Roy

'We can't all be Gandhi or Mao'

Aruna Roy Aruna Roy dedicates her Magsaysay Award for community leadership to the "ordinary people" in Rajasthan with whom she has worked for more than a quarter of a century.

Quitting her job in the Indian Administrative Service in 1975 she began working for the upliftment and development of the rural people in Tilonia in Rajasthan's Ajmer district where her internationally acclaimed husband Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy still continues with his experiment.

Aruna branched out to work independently with other groups in 1983. She formed the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan in 1990 to struggle for the empowerment of disadvantaged people. She also played a major role in the national campaign for the right to information and was instrumental in the enactment of Rajasthan's Right to Information Act this year. Kamala Bora spoke to her on Wednesday.

How do you feel on getting the coveted award, considered the Asian Nobel Prize?

Getting this award is certainly a matter of great honour. But I would say this honour belongs to the many exceptional, but so-called ordinary people. It is not possible for any one person, however endowed s/he may be, to bring about socio-political change.

Individual excellence is possible in a number of creative areas like the arts. But in the sort of work we do it is the coming together of complementary and creative forces that brings forth action that can make our world a better place.

But you have been the guiding force for the people's movement. Don't you think leadership makes a difference?

The burden of making things work can never be the work of an individual which must be recognised as the basic premise in our democratic polity. When the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation intimated me about the award I told them that instead of awarding me for the work at the grassroot level, the organisation and its entire workforce should be honoured. But the Foundation people told me that they had no provision for this.

Then I asked the village people and women activists with whom I work and all asked me to accept the award. I am accepting the honour on their behalf.

Why did you leave the IAS to pursue social service?

Frankly speaking, I was not happy with bureaucratic functioning. In the bureaucratic hierarchy a junior officer just does not matter. His or her say is no more than half a piece of fullscape paper in the file. There are times when one knows that the decisions being taken by the higher ups are blatantly wrong, but nothing can be challenged. Only after becoming a secretary do you get some independence, but nothing much can be done against the tide. So I said goodbye to the secure job.

How many years did you serve with the IAS ?

I served as an IAS officer from 1968 to 1975. But I was horrified with the indecision and wrong decisions being taken there.

You first joined your husband Bunker Roy's experiment in Tilonia. What prompted you to depart and find your own way for bringing about socio-political change?

I had my schooling in grassroot work in Tilonia. Before that I did not even knew what a village was. For nine years I enriched myself with new experiences. I got an understanding of collaborative experiences there. But I parted ways when I felt that economic development alone could not solve problems at the grassroot level.

What is your idea of development and social change?

A perception of the extraordinary in the ordinary is critical to bring about value based change today.

Leadership has to be redefined to include the collectives of ordinary people and the ideas they generate.

From where did you get this idea?

Many collectives of the poor people struggling for change gave us the ideas and the commitment to bring about meaningful change. In fact, this has been one of the outstanding lessons of my 25 years of work in rural Rajasthan. 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.

But you operate in a very small area in Rajasthan. Do you think this limited work can bring about big changes in society?

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.

What have been the hurdles in your work for bringing about social change?

It is very necessary to understand larger politics. Politics is a game of power. There is politics in the family, there is politics of gender and there is caste politics. Therefore, social and political change are inter-linked.

What has been your experience with political leaders and bureaucrats?

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.

What is your biggest achievement?

My biggest success is that I am still committed to my ideas of social change and have not lost heart.

Do you think the Magsaysay Award would help you in pursuing your goals?

Oh yes. This recognition would make our access to the bureaucracy for securing basic rights of the people easier. They (the bureaucrats) behave like that. They would recognise you only if you become something. Otherwise, they don't give a damn.

What are you planning to do with the award money?

Since the award is a recognition of certain ideas I would like to take this opportunity to take the struggle forward towards the realisation of the long dream of change. I shall be putting the money into a trust to be managed by a collective of people to support processes of democratic struggle.

You have been involved in the National Campaign for Right to Information. How does this right help in your struggle?

The biggest crisis we face today is dwindling participation of people in the democratic framework and a system of governance cloaked in secrecy and devoid of accountability to the people. The right to information would give big leverage to the people.

Have you succeeded?

Yes, to a great extent. The Rajasthan government has enacted the Right to Information Act. Although we are not satisfied with several provisions, at least there is a beginning. The Union government is also bringing such an Act whereas several states have also enacted laws to this effect.

Are you satisfied with your work?

I am satisfied that I never compromised with my values. I am satisfied that we are doing our work with honesty and morality and we are transparent.

To whom would you give credit for what you are doing today?

The poor village people who have been a great strength to me. I owe my teachers in the social service field for giving me the understanding of the real issues, and I owe my fearlessness to my parents who inculcated in me moral and ethical values.

What are your future plans?

Work more. Much remains to be done. Like knowledge, there is no limit for work. We have moved a little towards change. Manzil abhi bahut door hain (the goal is quite far off). I assure you we shall succeed.


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