An Interview With Aruna Roy: Janadesh 2007
Aruna Roy is a social activist who is best known for her endeavours for betterment of the rural poor in the state of Rajasthan. In 2000, she was awarded with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. Her continuous campaigns were instrumental in enactment of the Right to Information act -2005. She was as a member of the National Advisory Council for two years, where she helped and advocated the passage of the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Her contribution to the cause has been widely acknowledged. Here is an Exclusive telephonic interview of Aruna Roy with Santosh H K Narayan of Headlines India on contemporary socio-economic issues.
Very recently you met Sonia Gandhi highlighting the issue of tribal and poor peoples land. What was the outcome?
Aruna Roy: I met her along with a delegation- which included many campaigners from 'Janadesh-2007', which is at present the main focus of our activity. At least 25000 people are marching from Gwalior to Delhi, demanding a land reform policy from the government. Land should be given to the tillers at the earliest. In the National Common Minimum programme the UPA government had promised that people would get their land and their livelihood would be ensured, therefore we went to ask the UPA Chairperson that there is a commitment made by this government and it should be honoured. So, in principle, she accepted our claim, but regarding the formation of a land policy and the commission to execute it, she told, she would be talking to the Prime Minister. The PM has already been provided with the papers related to the matter. We requested her that there should be some immediate announcement by the government after due consultation with civil society groups and activists by the time the ongoing march (Janadesh-2007) arrives in Delhi. But Sonia didn't make any commitment.
As you said tribals and poor farmers are marching towards Delhi. What are the targets they are aiming to achieve?
Aruna Roy: There are no targets as such. They have certain demands. Janadesh- 2007 is a fight for the right to live and livelihood. Their demands include that the land should remain with its tillers. Farmers who own land today should be given a commitment that it would not be taken away from them. For all those who have been alloted land only on papers, should be given the actual position of the same. People who got land at the time of Binova Bhave and subsequently during Indira Gandhi's period still own their land on papers. Violence against those who go and cultivate on their own land should be checked with immediate effect.
Land reform policy should be such that it ensures security and livelihood of thousands and lakhs of farmers in this country. To what extent will Pepsi, colas and Macdonald's will replace farming in this country? Farming is an activity which incorporates many things. It is a employment programme; a self-reliance programme. You just can't take profit-loss account everywhere.
We can witness a continuous struggle going on by farmers and tribals fo rtheir rights. What do you think are the main reasons for that?
Aruna Roy: The main reason for it is the non-implementation of of land reforms in many states. Over the last decade and a half, there has been a paradigm shift as far as uasage of land is concerned. Earlier, there was less pressure on land, hence, there was less of problem too. But in last 3-5 years, the emphasis over the commercial usage of land has shifted towards acquisition and privatisation of land. Corporate farming and private farming is being insisted upon. The banks don't allow small donors to have any kind of special subsidy which they earlier had before. If you follow the line drawn by the international financial organisations, then Indian farmers cannot have any subsidy, but ironically, farming in US , Australia and Europe can be subsidised. Every single cow is subsidised in Europe. In that context, people are getting alienated from their lands and livelihood. Thus, it becomes imminent than ever before that the interest of 60 per cent of Indian population be protected.
There has been international pressure through WTO, IMF and World Bank. On the other hand we are also witnessing domestic pressure from big corporate houses to change the policies. Who is more responsible for the plight of poor?
Aruna Roy: These (domestic corporate houses) are part of an international community. Are not Indian corporates multinational? Even they are investing in various nations. Their nature is same. The Constitution says that we are a sovereign country and our representatives should follow our mandate. See, no body would say that India should not be developed and modernised. But, we should achieve it in indigenous way and with our own design.
We have seen changes in the government over time. Various political parties came and went. But the policies do not seem to changing. Do you think there is huge market pressure on the government- irrespective of the political party governing?
Aruna Roy: Who is taking the pressure. Are we not an independent entity? If we are, then to what an extent a government could be pressurised? Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for economics. He says that we can't have globalisation with inequality. If the developed countries say that they have surplus of money to invest in India, then we Indians have surplus of manpower. Let the developed countries allow our skilled manpower walk freely in their country. How can they expect us to do away with all the restrictions, while they continue with most of them.
Of late there has been furious actions by Naxals in many parts of India. They are against any kind of developmental activities being carried in backward areas. How can this approach be justified?
Aruna Roy: They were never protesting against all these 10 years ago. What was happening then? Where were all these developmental activities in these areas? Maoist and Naxal pockets are located in those areas of the country where there was no development and rule of law. Tribals were killed.Their land and resources were snatched. No body was there to listen to their voice. Now, the roads and electricity are being brought in these areas when multinationals are going to set up mines and factories there. Naxalism is the result of the loss of hope and faith in the system. These things breed Maoism, Naxalism and violence.
I can say as a concerned citizen of India that the impact of developmental policies and rule of law have failed in these areas. People do not want to live with violence. There have been repeated effort to deny the right of life to them. If you offer them a package and take a decision to treat them equally, only then the Naxalism can be cubed down. This menace has only a political and economic solution. Using of force against them is not going to do any trick. It will only increase India's instability. We have seen the state sponsored violence like Salawa Judum. It is not a solution.
When human right groups raise their voice against such atrocities, then they are being captured and put behind the bars, for example Vinayak Sen. He is graduate from Christian Medical College and is a gold medalist. He established a big hospital at Raipur. But the state government put him into jail by terming him a Maoist. Those who talk about human rights and about the progress of the country in real terms are put behind bars. It is not an answer.
It is quite evident that most of our natural resources are located in the backward and tribal areas. Government is quite rightly saying that there is need of resources for the development of society. But by doing that the livelihood of tribal and poor fall in jeopardy. How can a balance be maintained between these paradoxes?
Aruna Roy: Have you heard about climate change and global warming? Have you hared about depletion of forest? Do you realise that incidents like Tsunami and Katrina cannot be isolated? Do you realise that poles are melting and sea level is rising? Ironically, the path of development our country is following is leading us on the same path. So the exploitation of natural resources should be done judiciously. It can't be given to institutions, who are interested only in profit making. All the companies from abroad who are now making their presence felt in India have already destroyed their own environment. They will do the same even here.
Let's put all this information in the public domain and have a debate. In the era of Gandhiji, all the issues were debated publicly with Netajee, Ambedkar, Nehru and others. Only then the final decision would be taken. The issues ranging from the amount of land that would be used for development; to the environmental damage done in terms of global warming, everything should be debated. Let's analyse all the facts and then decide what is good or bad. And number two, the people who are going to be affected must be a par t of the debate. Not that you take a decision and then go and tell them that we have decided these things.
If you tell the rich people who are living in cities and have invested their money that the government is going to take their property for investing it in other development projects. Will they agree? In a democracy, it is the right of the people- whose land is being taken in the name of public purpose- to know what the public purpose amounts to. Just ponder over Maoism. I think it is a very clever ploy on the part of people who want to resort to violence. It is in their interest because once you declare an individual a Naxal or Maoist, you can kill him anytime! If some body says that 'don't take my land' that person can be killed. Today, if you talk about your own land then you would be branded a Naxalite!
Capitalism is a fight for the private property. It says that there should be privatisation of everything. In that context the land of poor would also be a private property for some people.
Government is talking about food security, but poor and peasant are far from getting that and going even further away. How should the governmental policies be redirected to ensure the food security?
Aruna Roy: Firstly, let the farmers and tribal have their land. Secondly, ensure financial stability to them. Provide them loans at the same interest rate that they were getting earlier. All the basic inputs of farmers should be made available to them. Only then the food security would be established. Because, there have to be production before you have food security. You can't convert all your lands into mines; in industries, or use it in producing fodder for foreign cows and simultaneously, have the food security. We have to ensure production and provide employment to buy food security.
We have been encountering reduction in farm produces, especially in the form of after affects of the Green Revolution. Do you think, there is a need to have a second Green Revolution, although with a different flavour?
Aruna Roy: I emphatically believe that there is lot of traditional wisdom in India, which have always been ignored. What we must do at this stage is, to have a complete introspection on agriculture. People here are practicing farming from time immemorial. There are farmers who have been maintaining the available resources since then. We destroyed those in 50 years. So the fault is not with the farmers, but with foreign technologies, which does not considers land as a resource. It does not deal with the protection of that resource. People and technology which nurtures trees and forest, protect the land, uses the rivers without polluting them should be encouraged. People still have such measures available with them. One has has to reach to them. But if only one sided agenda exits, then there is no future.
Numerically, India's GDP is growing at the rate of 8-9 per cent. If it is, then how can it be utilised for the betterment of the people who are at the lower strata?
Aruna Roy: 8 or 9 per cent growth is alright. But what does it means in real terms? Whether it is going to increase private income and interest? We would like to know exactly what does it mean. We would like to know the breakup of this GDP growth in terms of building government resources. Unless this will go up, benefit of this GDP will never reach to the larger section of the country. It is government and its policies which is directly responsible for the state of the people. Private companies can't be forced to do these things (developmental).
So, do you want to say it has 'failed'?
Aruna Roy: I don't say that. But nothing much has filtered down to the people. I don't see any village getting road, electricity and school due to this high rate of growth. In fact people from rural areas are migrating to live in urban slums. If it doesn't happens, then this growth will have some meaning.
You have been very much attached with RTI, personally. What is the difference this law has made in the day-to-day lives of a common man?
Aruna Roy: I think RTI, in real terms, has made a phenomenal difference. Two-three things which it has done are remarkable. The first and foremost one is that it has democratised the people in a better way. If you don't demand answers then the people, who are at the helm of affairs, would not be reigned in and then everything would be snatched and sold. This fact has been understood by many. Recently, Habibullah (Chief Information Commissioner) had convened a meeting of Information Commissioners of all states. In this meeting, it was known that thousands of applications are coming from the people of Maharastra for information. But other states are not maintaining even the records. So the government is not doing its duty, people are doing. Commission is sandwiched in between. It does something and leaves something. In spite of that, RTI is one important legislation which has given us hope. See, before this, we were knowing that many things are going wrong, but we didn't know how to ask for that information, how to ask for accountability. This law has paved the way for maintaining accountability.
Now something on a personal note. You left a powerful government job and came forward to work for people. Do you think that the type of administrative setup we have, is producing hurdles in transparent functioning?
Aruna Roy: The basic changes can't come under the government. Administration is there to maintain the status- quo. But bureaucracy is also needed to run this country. An honest and accountable bureaucracy is necessary. We have wrong assumption in India that if one per cent of bureaucracy works properly, then the whole country would change. I feel that there must be a democratic and accountable system everywhere. Bureaucracy has a role but perhaps we give too much of hype to it.
Is it not because we adopted the bureaucratic setup made up by Britishers and did not change or modify it according to our necessities?
Aruna Roy: That is quite true. We did not want to change it, because if the common people occupy the position then what would the powerful people do. The condition is even worse now (than British rule).
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