July 31: She was once an officer of the Indian Administrative Service or the IAS as it is popularly known. What is equally well known is that most IAS officers are as remote from the people as possible. Today, she has won the Magsaysay Award for public service for daring to question this attitude.

She looks like a village woman in a simple sari, chatting away in a local dialect or language of Rajasthan.

She is Aruna Roy, the winner of the Magsaysay Award for public service of 2000.
The Magsaysay Award recognises individuals and organisations in Asia for the contributions they make in bettering the lives of people in some way or the other. The Award is named after the third president of the Republic of the Philippines, Ramon Magsaysay, who is considered one of the outstanding leaders of his time. The award is given to those individuals whose work are in tune with the ideals and service for which President Ramon Magsaysay is remembered.

Aruna Roy - Voice of the People
Aruna Roy – Voice of the People [Illustration by Shiju George]
Aruna has won this award for her long and dedicated work among the poor people of Devdungri village in Rajasthan. She runs an organisation called Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan ( MKSS ), which was started with the idea of making the villagers conscious of their rights in a democracy.

MKSS is based in Devdungri. It takes no money from anywhere to run itself. Its only source of income are the items of daily use it sells to villagers in a few shops. And it has none of the things an office is supposed to need to be able to run. No fax, no telephone, not even electricity. Actually, Devdungri village has none of these things either.

How does Aruna manage? As an IAS officer she enjoyed the best facilities of the country at her disposal — a house, a car, a good salary, and the power that goes with being a senior government officer.

And yet, she wasn’t happy with the way IAS officers were running the country. They form a most powerful bureaucracy, or the organ of the state which deals with the administration of the country. It is one of the most important organs, for it keeps things going. The Indian bureaucracy though, has one big problem – it is too distant from the people it is supposed to administer. The superior attitude of its officers poses the main problem.

Aruna was not like the others. She wanted to get close to the people, particularly the villagers, and understand their problems. In fact India is a democracy. Which means that its government should be as open to the people as possible. But quite the opposite was true. So Aruna quit service to work among the people of Rajasthan, one of the most backward states in India.

She soon realised that it was the bureaucracy which posed the biggest hindrance to people. She wanted the bureaucracy to be accountable to people. So she began a campaign for The Right to Information for villagers. This means that ordinary people had could demand to know what the government officials were doing with funds meant for their progress. The idea was for people to organise public hearings so that everybody could be part of the process.

The battle, as Aruna found for herself, was not an easy one. MKSS used the methods of protest marches, and travel from village to village to create awareness about the campaign. While she got tremendous support from the people, the state government and officials ignored it. Naturally.

But that didn’t stop Aruna. She and fellow- workers persuaded the Press Council
of India to draft a bill on the Right to Information, to be placed before Parliament. The Press Council of India is an organisation of media people, which keeps track of the way in which right of people to know something or the right of journalists to write something is taken away. Parliament alone has the authority to decide which bill to pass or not. The Right to Information Bill allows anyone to get hold of information and gives everybody the right to obtain certified copies of documents or records of any public authority.

Aruna and her friends finally persuaded the government to bow to public pressure. The Right to Information bill became an Act this year.

Aruna is married to Bunker Roy who is also a noted social worker. But she says that their approaches to solving problems of people are different.

The prestige of the Award makes no difference to Aruna. Always humble, she says that she would be happier if the award was given not to her but her organisation and fellow-workers.