Aruna Roy interview

‘Democracy is being hollowed out’

Print edition : February 01, 2019

Aruna Roy. Photo: By Special Arrangement.

At Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in August 2013, at a day-long event organised by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information to protest against the proposal to amend the RTI Act to keep political parties out of its ambit. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

With other activists at a function in Jaipur on February 2, 2011, to commemorate five years of the MGNREGA. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

In Devdungri, Rajasthan, with (from left) Dhowba, Balaji, Jeevan and Lal Singh during the early days of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. Photo: Sohail Akbar

With an activist during a rally organised by the Pension Parishad at Jantar Mantar on August 22, 2013, demanding the entitlement to universal old age pension. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Interview with Aruna Roy.

ARUNA ROY is a well-known social and political activist. A former Indian Administrative Service officer, she resigned from the IAS in 1975 and has since worked with the most oppressed in society. Aruna Roy’s observation on government service is indicative of her future concerns: “Everyone calls it an elite service; I always felt the discourse should be a bit better than what it was. I was shocked to find people boasting about their ‘achievements’ in corruption. I realised that if I remained in the system, I would have to oppose it without any assurance of support from colleagues or success. I preferred to leave.”

After quitting the civil service, she joined the Rajasthan-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Social Work and Research Centre. Aruna Roy left the SWRC in 1983 and in 1990 formed the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a people’s political organisation. The MKSS began by fighting for fair and equal wages for workers, which evolved into a struggle for the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Aruna Roy is one of the key figures who played an important role in the realisation of this Act in 2005. A champion of participatory democracy and decentralisation, she says that “representative democracy had to a great extent betrayed its promise to deliver. Though necessary, its failure to be accountable to people, beyond the vote, was underscored again and again. Democracy had to shift more towards participation.”

She has been in the forefront of many sociopolitical struggles of the poor and oppressed. She also voices her concerns about the recent increase in intolerance in the country. Her leadership and participation in the campaigns for the enactment of laws relating to the right to information, the right to work (the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA) and the right to food are noteworthy. As a member of the Pension Parishad, she has been involved with the campaign for a universal, non-contributory pension for workers of the unorganised sector. As part of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), she was vocal in her demand for the passage of the Whistle Blowers Protection Act and the Grievance Redressal Act.

Aruna Roy worked as a member of the National Advisory Council from 2004 until her resignation in 2006 and later from 2010 to 2013. A staunch critic of neoliberalism and communalism, she is a recipient of many distinguished awards and honours, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership (2000) and the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academia and Management (2010). Time magazine included her in its list of the 100 most influential personalities in the world in 2011. Along with the MKSS, Aruna Roy has co-authored The RTI Story: Power to the People (February 2018), which explains people’s democratic involvement in drafting policy and legislation.

In this interview with Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M., Aruna Roy speaks on a wide range of issues such as the need for a whistle-blowers Act, the background of the RTI campaign, four years of the Narendra Modi government, the changing political body language of the country, attacks on dissent, the ongoing agrarian crisis, activities and campaigns of the MKSS, policy alternatives to foster more inclusiveness, the importance of participatory democracy, the role of civil society, and the women’s reservation Bill. Excerpts:

According to some reports, more than 65 whistle-blowers who used the RTI Act have been killed in India since 2005. It was in this context that the Central government was forced to introduce the Whistle Blowers Protection Act, which got the President’s assent in 2014. But an amendment was made to dilute even the basic purpose of the law. What kind of law do we need and how can we ensure that whistle-blowers are protected?

We need a law that recognises the need for protection of any human being who has the courage to expose and disclose the working of a corrupt and arbitrary system. Even after the President’s assent, however, the law (diluted as it is) is yet to be notified. The first step, therefore, will be to notify the whistle-blowers law, and thereafter to see how it can be further strengthened.

It is always critical for ethical people in the system to state truth to power [in order] to expose corruption and the arbitrary use of power. This is one of the most difficult situations, where every day can be a nightmare. These “whistle-blowers” need to be empowered and protected. Human rights, civil rights and RTI exposes are also instances where people stick their necks out to oppose injustice and corruption. Often, the corrupt power elite ensure that they are persecuted and sometimes eliminated. The whistle-blowers law is needed for their protection as well.

In India, the governance system continues to be arbitrary and corrupt despite reforms and the demand for radical legislation. It has worsened with the opaqueness and tight controls exercised in the last four years resulting in bringing back exclusivity in governance. The decision to demonetise is the most notorious of the examples of arbitrary decision-making. The participation of civil society has decreased proportionately in the decision-making processes, further reducing prospects of monitoring and guaranteeing the ethical functioning of government. The reluctance to pass the law is in direct proportion to the corruption and arbitrary misuse of power in the ruling establishment.

You were at the forefront of campaigns and the fight for the RTI Act. Could you explain what made people like you campaign for such a law?

The MKSS works with peasants and workers who are in a daily struggle to survive. For them work and wages are linked to food, shelter and survival. In this context, the delivery of services through the government system is vital for their existence. The non-delivery [of services] is often due to corruption, which thrives on secrecy and an opaque governance mechanism. The marginalised were stonewalled in their struggle against such corruption as officials refused to listen to their complaints or to examine their issues. The system justified inaction or mismanagement quoting government documents which were “secret”. Workers realised that these “secret” documents had to be brought out, compared with the facts on the ground and the contradictions exposed. Until this happened, these “secret” government documents would always prevail over the word of the people. Hence, the RTI was needed to expose the corruption and lies in government functioning that was affecting people’s everyday lives.

How do you assess the performance of the RTI Act in its more than a decade of existence? Are you satisfied with its present way of working?

India is notorious for passing laws it hardly implements. However, the RTI was a collective architectural design and was the beginning of rights-based laws. After many years of experience in different States, the RTI law has come into effect. We must recognise, acknowledge and applaud that we have one of the strongest information laws in the world that is also the most widely used; an estimated 80 lakh applications are made every year.

We must also be aware, however, that we are being denied more and more information on baseless grounds. Examples of information denied range from the Prime Minister’s educational degree to the submissions that were made to the Committee on Data Protection, which will impact access to information.

There are also graver threats by repeated efforts to dilute the law through amendments. The gravest threats are faced by RTI users, who have often been killed.

So, while there is cause for some satisfaction, there is a need for continued vigilance to protect the law and its users. There is also the need to go beyond and enact and operationalise other laws, such as the whistle-blowers [protection] law, a grievance redressal law and an accountability law, apart from reforming institutions such as the CVC [Central Vigilance Commission] and the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation].

Diversity under threat

How do you assess the four years of the Modi government? We have reports of the MGNREGA and other welfare measures being starved of funds. How did this government’s economic policies affect the poorest sections of society?

The Modi government began with a frontal assault on rights-based legislation and entitlements. The blind pursuit of economic growth, without a genuine critique of its defects and shortcomings, has belied its promises. On the contrary, by giving protection to corporates, it has encouraged a kind of crony capitalism. Policy is also used to protect corporate interests and the secrecy of the system. Electoral bonds, for instance, allows corporate donations, both Indian and foreign, to political parties in secret.

The country’s celebrated diversity is under the threat of homogenisation. All differing points of view are termed anti-national, a threat to security, and those who raise a voice of protest become victims of unjustified action by the state. Lynching occurs with the tacit approval of the state and with government support to the criminals with silence and inaction. The rights-based laws are under attack as well, implicitly by reductionism and omission.

The poor are reeling under ill-conceived and badly executed policies such as demonetisation and GST [goods and services tax]. Their social security nets are starved of funds, and they are literally dying of starvation owing to the illegitimate push of Aadhaar. The concentration of power and fear of retribution and intolerance of dissent are so acute that there is silence. This is a government of the few (privileged), by them and for themselves. There is little room for critique and none for criticism.

The Supreme Court has upheld the use of Aadhaar for social welfare schemes. There are a number of painful stories from different parts of the country of poor people being deprived of social welfare benefits because they do not have an Aadhaar number. What is your response to the court’s Aadhaar verdict?

The verdict was a disappointment in three critical matters. The first is the matter of linking Aadhaar to subsidies for the people who survive on social benefits from the government. The success claimed by the government in rooting out corruption, shown as savings, is unsubstantiated. If there are detected cases of corruption from which money has been saved, it logically follows that cases should have been registered against the guilty. There are practically none. How then do we believe that there have been savings?

The figure of Aadhaar authentication failure in the judgment, of a quarter of a per cent, is ambiguous. There is no transparency in the process of deduction, and the result is at odds with the number of detected cases on the ground. The lived reality of the people who have to depend on Aadhaar to receive welfare disbursements tells us another story.

The second is the democratic failure: the Aadhaar legislation, which has a huge impact on our population, went undiscussed in Parliament (discussion was a mere formality in the Lok Sabha and the government did not accept the amendments passed by the Rajya Sabha) where much of this [the problems] could have been sorted out. It is also an indication that the issue needs to be made a political issue to be settled by legislation [rather] than depending on the courts.

The third issue is that of the potential for surveillance, tracking and profiling through the linkage of Aadhaar with various services, such as mobiles and bank accounts. While there has been some relief from the court on the mandatory seeding of Aadhaar with SIM cards and bank accounts, even this is not as straightforward as it sounds. In the case of bank accounts, one needs to have a PAN card to open a bank account. And the linkage of Aadhaar with the PAN card has been upheld by the court. So, indirectly, one still needs to have an Aadhaar number to be able to open a bank account.


Hindu communalism, or Hindutva, has made a lot of headway under the current dispensation and is even threatening the basic edifice of India’s secularism and the Constitution. How has it divided people and affected their joint struggles for basic rights? How do you look at the changing political body language of the country?

This is a clash between the values and principles of the Constitution and Manuvad or Hindutva. Communalism in India has been developed into a complicated system that uses every divide to segregate. The rulers who are mandated with providing constitutional protection are themselves breaking its norms. “Lynchings” keep hatred simmering, and the intensity of fear keeps citizens from attending to the failures in constitutional governance, from fighting corruption or struggling against the distortion of truth, such as the rhetoric of public claims by the ruling elite. Unemployed youth drawn to and engaged in the senseless bravado of communalism are prevented from revolting against the state on the real issue of unemployment. This cynical comment has disturbed me: “Lynching keeps fear alive but is more manageable than a riot and leaves ordinary people free to go about their lives unimpeded.” These violent tactics bring about dismemberment of society and will one day, like Frankenstein[’s monster], swallow up the acquiescent society.

Despotic tendencies

In an earlier interview, you said that the lot of this country depends upon the outcome of the 2019 election. You also said that if the Constitution ceases to exist in its present form, many things will be in peril. What will be in peril if the National Democratic Alliance retains power in the next general election?

The fundamental secular fabric of our Constitution is in peril, indications of which have begun to show. Apart from the existential threat to several minorities, even those in the majority with differing opinions and political ideologies in variance with the ruling dispensation’s are threatened. With a pliant state machinery at its disposal, an unjust and biased state has already begun to display despotic tendencies. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The independence of democratic institutions—like the Human Rights Commission, Central Information Commission, Election Commission and the CVC—has already been eroded. Universities are being stifled. Disbanding the Planning Commission [and replacing it] with a non-transparent body like the NITI Aayog excludes the people of India from being able to know the road map of development planning and thereby critique it, leaving a the government unaccountable. Kerala continues to have its State Planning Board; we must know how many others continue to have that structure intact.

Attempts have been made to reduce the power, effectiveness and independence of the judiciary in many ways. India is divided into the lowest common denominator of its caste-based fragmented identities. “Manuvad” is waiting in the wings to take over the value base. Manuvad and the Constitution stand in direct confrontation: traditional rigid hierarchy and bigotry versus constitutional equality and liberty. It’s an important call to the people to protect their interests and to elect wisely and with maturity. In effect, the Indian citizen already reeling under the attack on freedom of expression in arts, cultural expression, ideas and in accepting varied ideologies will see it cemented by law. The rule of law will be vitiated by unconstitutional legislation, and opposing an unjust law in practice will be termed “unlawful” and those protesting termed “anti-national” and prosecuted. It has become critical to protect and cherish the Constitution if our real independence of exercising fundamental rights has to remain.

Every day from different parts of the country, one hears of the brutal lynching of poor Muslims and Dalits in the name of cow protection. The Union government went to the extent of putting a ban on cattle trading across States. How does this cow vigilantism affect the agrarian economy? What are the consequences? What is the political economy that allows such vigilante groups to thrive?

Cows and bullocks are let loose by farmers who cannot feed an animal that does not contribute to their income or dispose of the animal, overburdened as they are by a range of economic pressures. These animals now manifest their angst in many small aggressive ways. Starved of feed, they slowly turn into herds that go foraging for food and enter any field that looks green to satisfy their needs. Local farmers complain of their inability to deal with this problem, and many farmers have stopped cultivation of one crop.

The managers of gaushalas are often corrupt, and money received as donations for cow protection is misused. It is not surprising that farmers will soon shy away from buying cows and contributing to the white revolution and its sustenance. The government on its part is unaccountable as it articulates cow-communal jingoism but in real terms has pawned its milk production and self-reliance. The inter-State traffic of people and animals has sustained the rural economy; without mobility it will not be possible for the rural economy to sustain itself very much longer. This massive drive to push Indian farmers into economic distress and suicide and into selling their land, making it fertile ground for the corporate lobby, is a deliberate plan.

Many cattle farmers are Muslims and are attacked for buying cows or going about their daily business. Cow vigilantism has had a field day, with governments not delivering justice and allowing lynching to happen. Its perpetrators are given impunity by the state and freedom from legal obligations. It is a cynical and calculated strategy to build fear in the minority communities and suppress the voice of the rational supporters across communities and groups. The rational voices in support are feared, and they are silenced as the assassinations of [Narendra] Dabholkar, [Govind] Pansare, [M.M.] Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh have shown.

The ‘acche din’ rhetoric

The arrest of five well-known human rights activists aroused significant protests all over the country. “Urban naxal” is the new branding used to scuttle dissent. Why were they targeted? Is it a warning the ruling establishment wishes to send to those who are on the other side of the spectrum?

All governments are wary of critique and criticism, dissent and disagreement in any form, which remains a continuing irony in democratic governance. But there are varied reactions in range and in intensity between governments.

The present government is all set to change the architecture of governance and is setting out to do many things. It has a rhetoric in direct contradiction to its intent, lulling people into a make-believe world of well-being, “acche din”. The other is dismantling the architecture of equity and equality set up to operationalise the constitutional guarantees, the process of supporting and helping people at the margins, which means economic, social and political equity.

All this means that they need to have their predicaments explained and amplified in the idiom of governance so that political and other structures take note. In this transference, people need the assistance of specialists with skills and commitment who amplify these voices and disprove the false claims of the ruling establishment. Since they are people with intelligence, integrity and skills, they are heard and their words carry weight. They are, therefore, seen as “dangerous”, not to the state but to the government in power and those who make false claims. The insidious and Machiavellian tactics are to declare them anti-national, seditious or a security risk. So far naxals lived in forests very far from the common person. The label urban naxal would then serve two purposes. It would stop all such critique and also induce fear, first in those who articulate it and also in the ignorant and the supporter alike [that stops them] from adding their voice. These would also have an impact on their vote in elections. If one sees this causality, the unethical planning for grabbing power becomes apparent.

The pity is that the fourth estate, too, committed to helping a people learn through analysis in publication and visual programmes, is now corporatised and caught up in its own mesh.

This issue is also a means to create a distraction in the media that might otherwise catch on to the narrative of growing discontentment against the ruling dispensation. The creation of the “urban Maoist” is not merely branding to scuttle dissent but is also a dog whistle to trolls to create noise and drum up nationalist sentiment and drown out voices of disenchantment. It is a sign of the growing desperation in the ruling establishment. The “urban naxal” as defined by the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and its henchmen, ironically, became a label of repute and integrity, starting with “Me too urban naxal”!

Agrarian crisis

India has been undergoing an unparalleled agrarian crisis since it embraced neoliberal policies. The suicides of more than three lakh peasants, acute rural distress and rural migration in search of non-existent jobs are the major manifestations of this crisis. How does the MKSS look at this crisis? What policy alternatives are needed?

There has been no comprehensive agrarian policy for two decades or more to address the interrelated issues of the farmer. The agrarian crisis has impacted India in multiple ways. Apart from the shocking suicides, farmers have complaints ranging from land policies, credit, availability of other inputs, and the encroachment on agrarian rights. While this is contradicted by rhetoric, and rhetoric alone, the loss of land to a range of assaults is fast becoming the fundamental battle. It is insidious and attacks the basic framework of the economics of middle[-income] and poor farmers. Bank credit and support have become difficult, and with the other support to agriculture also weakened, the loans become difficult to repay.

There is a crying need for the non-agrarian sector to look at their dependence on agriculture for daily life and ask themselves some critical questions: whether they are ready to lose self-sufficiency in economic terms and employment for a sizeable chunk of their population with these regressive policies. Do others have a role to play in demanding justice for farmers? If so, what are we going to do about it?

Many social analysts like P. Sainath have been writing, collecting data and organising the amplification of their voice. We all have to ensure that the farmers’ condition is both explained and communicated to those who enjoy the fruits of agriculture every day but hardly know its source. What is the cost of every farmer’s suicide?

Farmers have been on the march in different States and have repeatedly marched to New Delhi demanding attention to the agricultural sector. One significant demand, as a part of the massive joint farmers’ march in November, was for a special session of Parliament to look at agrarian policy and the farmers’ crisis. Piecemeal measures will no longer resolve the issues.

What are the current activities and campaigns of the MKSS. How do you assess the contributions you have made to the betterment of the oppressed since you formed the organisation, especially during the neoliberal period?

The MKSS is a peasant and workers organisation formed in neoliberal times. It continues to struggle for the economic, social and political rights of the poor and the marginalised and works the dialectic between the specific and the general, between action and theory, between practice and the law. In these times, the framing of issues has to be contextualised differently given that the priorities of the people remain the same.

As a grass-roots organisation, the MKSS has understood that linking the village economy with policies and legislation in Jaipur [the State capital, where the MKSS is based] and New Delhi are critical for understanding the economic-political predicament faced by the people. The organisation does two separate kinds of work. It addresses immediate problems of the people and in a reflective exercise analyses their actions to find legislative and policy solutions through larger public action. Post-liberalisation, the rural economy has faced issues primarily affecting livelihood, employment and shrinking state support. The people who are to receive benefits are the best situated to design and decide on policy and legislative frameworks. They know what will work well.

The emergence of the MGNREGA was propelled by small farmers, who are part-time workers, demanding work guarantees. The stories of people in the labour market have been appalling. There is consistent and persistent lack of work in the “labour market”. The MKSS was a part of this stream of institutions committed to addressing needs articulated by the people themselves. The MKSS is working with issues of survival—pensions, rations—and has been demanding that education and health be ensured by the state. Democratic governance and the necessity of transparent delivery of services have forced us to look at, and view with deep concern, the non-participatory [nature of] and non-transparency built into processes like UID [unique identification] and big data.

Similarly, the bluff of a “free market” was challenged by the Mazdoor Kisan Kirana Stores [detailed in the book The RTI Story], collectively set up with crowdfunding to address the need for unadulterated and correctly priced food and other daily needs of workers.

The shops taught people that the myth of profit and margins can be questioned with logic. It established, too, that there can be worker-organised business and sale outlets.

The subtle traps laid by money-lending and credit facilities offered by the locally affluent community lead to mortgaging and then surrendering of land. The MKSS has also been involved with the crisis resulting from social-political injustice afflicted on people. The economics of poverty affects the receipt and delivery of justice. Democratic India has tried to tackle this very knotty issue from the bottom up. Controls over community land, access to justice for women, and ensuring the delivery of all government services have been important concerns of the MKSS.

The poor are consistently harassed by the gap between promise and reality, whether it is pensions, rations, work, health delivery and a score of issues. The MKSS has used the RTI Act and its skills in unravelling the working of the delivery system to demand immediate addressing of both distress and the consequent changes needed in policy and legislation. Engagement with governance has been and will continue to be a way of addressing the problems in a sustainable manner, where people are empowered to use laws and demand accountability. Governments are and will be seen as constitutionally obligated mechanisms for reducing inequality and enabling access to rights—freedom from hunger, unemployment, illiteracy, etc.

Socially, the MKSS has engaged with discrimination in its many forms for those socially oppressed, whether it is temple entry, rape and ill treatment of poor and Dalit women, or access to drinking water and justice. The daily routine covers a range of such activities.

The creation of campaigns and platforms has always been an important preoccupation of the MKSS. It has been a founder member of the RTI and MGNREGA campaigns. The Suchna Rozgaar Abhiyan [SRA], a network of over 100 organisations in Rajasthan, of which the MKSS is a founder member, has managed to engage with the government to ensure that justice is incorporated into the policy design. It is another such platform for expressing and seeking remedies for the rights of the poor and marginalised. Through and with this platform, the MKSS has organised several campaigns, including Shiksha ka Sawal, which covered 10,000 schools for access to primary infrastructure and posting of teachers. The Jawabdehi Yatra uncovered fraud where many lakhs of pensioners were set aside as dead by an arbitrary move of the Rajasthan government. Attention to detail and collation of data across the State, with campaigns, has led to many lakhs of people regaining their basic right to food and pensions. Those affected by silicosis have also been brought together and organised through the SRA.

It is evident that the balance sheet of neoliberal policies shows greater misery for the poor. Market fundamentalism wreaks havoc on the lives of the poorest in the country. How do you think these policies have affected the poor? What policy alternatives are needed to make a better society?

Neoliberal policies, the market and its values have diluted the government’s responsibilities in ensuring that the promises made in the directive principles of state policy reach the citizen. The worst affected in terms of social security are the poor. The concept of the “welfare state”, which was knitted into the structure and pattern of governance, has been dismantled. It is not merely the market and its operation but its permeation into governance at every level. In actual terms, it has meant the loss of employment, food security, benefits of public health and education, and so on. Even the dismantling of platforms of public consultation has affected people adversely.

Democratic and governance mechanisms have been weakened at all levels. The Planning Commission, an institution of public sharing of policy and the outlay of expenditure, from which we could learn the design of the role of governments, has been replaced with the NITI Aayog, which excludes participation and promotes arbitrariness. For the marginalised, the government stands as guarantor to implement the promises made in the Constitution. Some protection has come from rights-based laws.

The matter of land ownership, control and use is a critical matter that affects the rural economy in general and the poor in particular. Almost all “development” plans displace people and bring in new threats, from mining to manufacture of building materials. They are all invasive, including destroying general health standards. Maladies like silicosis typify the current killer diseases that afflict workers. The organic perception of growth and well-being has been lost. It was seen as an interdependent mechanism between various sectors and interests negotiated with the government playing the role of arbiter of justice. This has degenerated, and the arbitrator, the government, is a party influenced by big money. All evaluation is taken over by a single indicator—wealth as projected by the share market. Market technologies of selling, packaging, branding and promoting has entered politics, educational institutions and even many NGOs, vitiating the relationship of accountability and responsibility between the voter and her representative. “Growth rate”, regardless of who benefits, has become the only evaluative indicator, playing havoc with concerns of equity and environment, like climate change.

Assault on rights

You have been part of several popular and democratic struggles for the most oppressed section of society. In “The RTI Story: Power to the People”, you wrote about “the importance of reclaiming the state through the expression of constitutional rights and regaining democratic institutions”. Don’t you think that the space for this has shrunk significantly in the past four years?

The space has shrunk considerably. The right to freedom of expression has been denied in every which way. From restricting protest (banning people from spaces like Jantar Mantar, where a PIL [public interest litigation] by the MKSS has reclaimed some space because of a partially favourable Supreme Court order prohibiting blanket bans), drumming fear into citizenry by persecuting, lynching, assassinating, booking articulate people with the courage to speak in the public domain as seditious and anti-state—the list is endless. Lately, musicians and writers have been threatened when they wanted to perform to promote communal harmony in various parts of the country; the Carnatic music singers who wanted to sing inter-faith songs are a case in point. The role of governments in promoting such activities through polemic and granting moral impunity, not using the criminal justice system to book vandals and hooligans has further vitiated the space. Democracy is being hollowed out. To recall a famous T.S. Eliot poem: “we are the hollow men, the stuffed men…”. We have been hollowed out of rational thought and stuffed with polemic, hatred and a taste for violence. Propped up to believe that we are acting to protect a notion of moral authority while breaking it at every step.

In your book, you wrote that “democracy had to shift more dramatically towards participation. Representative democracy had to a great extent betrayed its promise to deliver.” Your campaigns are more or less to address this issue. What needs to be done to make Indian democracy more representative and include more participation of the common people? What are the important issues to be addressed immediately?

We are being “persuaded” to push the very structures that promote participation underground. Either there is a trade-off on our ignorance or on the lack of courage to incur displeasure and the violence that follows in speaking, writing or organising public protest. Those whom we voted for to protect us on the basis of the Constitution and the rule of law largely twist those rules and laws and turn a blind eye to anti-democratic laws, policies and rules. Take the instance of electoral bonds, which permits money to be donated to political parties without transparency or accountability, or the successful cutting down of the budgets for the MGNREGA, or the more brazen restrictions on subsidies. Why are there so few voices to speak up for democracy’s basic promise by the elected representatives to their voters? Why are all institutions for independent critique and assessment of government functioning being rendered powerless? Questions have to be asked and answers demanded. The RTI Act is under threat of amendment, and every regressive change is misrepresented as a progressive move through blatant doublespeak.

That is why the rights-based laws are important and critical. They give the ordinary citizen a foothold in decision-making and implementation, leading to a right to demand accountability. These laws bring institutional platforms of direct democracy, of which the pre-legislative process and social audit are examples. They need to be strengthened in these challenging times.

What is the role of civil society in deepening and strengthening democracy?

Civil society is a huge spectrum ranging from the ultra rich to the destitute Indian. The majority in civil society benefits from democracy; a very small slice benefits from arbitrary decision-making—the ruling power elite. The large section which wants democracy will have to persistently question, oppose and demand adherence to constitutional values and the rule of law. This large conglomerate will also have to look for common platforms to articulate a non-negotiable set of principles and values. Constant vigilance and monitoring are critical. That is why the accountability laws—the Lokpal, the Grievance Redressal Bill, the Whistle Blowers Act—assume great significance. Social audits and public hearings emphasise the citizen’s right to monitor, plan and participate at every stage of governance. The laws may be in place, but all governments are dragging their feet on their implementation.

What are the most important and urgent pieces of legislation and social welfare measures needed to make a change in the life of people who live in abysmal conditions, who comprise the majority of the population?

In addition to all that has been mentioned earlier, we also need a comprehensive policy on agriculture to alleviate farmer distress. Public education and the health care system in India are in very urgent need of an overhaul and prioritisation. Our system is being pushed to privatisation where the poor are excluded. A quick look at indebtedness shows that health problems are a major factor that pushes people into debt traps and endemic poverty. In short, we need universal public health care and education, people’s control over natural resources, minimum guarantees for labour and farming, strong measures against discrimination, and a participatory governance system. Campaigns and people’s movements have been campaigning for these issues for decades.

Environmental degradation and its correlation with marauding capitalism and growth or development are a huge concern. This goes beyond social welfare measures. The fact that we always think of nature as waiting to be “exploited” shows how little we care for what is the basis of all our collective lives. Only when natural disasters hit us do we stop to consider how much of it is man-made. It is pertinent that saving our environment gets priority and necessary policy is put into place for this. We also need to repeal laws that are anti-democratic, such as the UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act], that override the Constitution.

Neoliberal ideologists propound the argument that the government does not have enough financial resources to fund social welfare measures, which are seen as “non- productive”. This is used to push the privatisation agenda. Do you buy this argument?

There are two fallacies in this argument. The first is the assumption that there aren’t enough financial resources at a time when there is news about record tax collections, whether it is income tax or GST or tax on the sale of petrol and diesel. When the government claims that revenues are higher than ever before, making this argument seems duplicitous. Especially when the government seems to find money for projects like bullet trains and we have public financial institutions giving massive loans to the private sector! One only needs to see who is benefitting from the so-called “growth” in order to know what the priorities are.

The second flaw in the argument is dubbing welfare spending as “non-productive”. The nature of the MGNREGA or other such “welfare” programmes is that they build up the most important part of any structure: human resources and the development of remote areas. Democracy also needs vigilance; along with participation in economic programmes from planning to benefits, it equips the ordinary citizen [with the skills] to learn how to cope with interfacing with government structures locally, understanding the law and its implementation better. It also depends on how production or assets are viewed. For instance, the MGNREGA can also be seen as a massive political education programme on democracy and the role of responsible questioning and suggesting of methods of improvement along with accountability of expenditure. The reaction of the centres of power is to the questions on corruption and the arbitrary use of power—tools of impunity from the law and unaccountable public spending.

The question is, would this country benefit it were to spend on public education and health? Is it non-productive if it leads to better jobs? Is the economy of a nation not affected by illness and a sick population? If so, spending on health is productive and this argument is basically fallacious.

The Women’s Reservation Bill is now in cold storage. It seems that the present government, too, will not take the initiative to get it passed. What is the importance of the Bill and how important is it to pass it as early as possible?

The Bill is critical because of the under-representation of women in political parties and in elected bodies. The argument for women’s reservation can also be made from the success in panchayat and other elections, where they have reservation up to 50 per cent and which has led to substantive empowerment in many ways. But the political climate is influenced by a small patriarchal, vocal and militant right-wing fundamentalist group which pins all economic privations in society on reservation. In that battle, this demand is conveniently subsumed and set aside.

Literacy & the right to contest elections

The Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, made a matriculation pass, among other criteria, necessary if one wanted to contest in local body elections. This significantly restricted the ability of the poor, women, Dalits and others to contest. Later, the Supreme Court upheld this law. How does such a law affect the democratic process and what precedent does it set?

This will disqualify 95 per cent of rural women and 80 per cent of the electorate above 40 years from standing for elections. If illiteracy is such a bane, how can a PIL demanding that the corrupt be debarred from standing for elections be dismissed by the Supreme Court [judgment delivered on September 25, 2018, on writ petition (civil) No 536 of 2011], which asked the political parties instead to publicise the corrupt candidates from their parties, an impossibility! If they float corrupt candidates, they can hardly be expected to broadcast their corruption.

The answer is perhaps that it is a deliberate move to ensure that the elite capture grass-roots democracy. In one stroke, it lays the blame and burden of education on the people and ensures the continuance of power in the hands of the privileged. The running of governments needs to take all matters into consideration! Women, Dalits and tribal people at the bottom of the pile will be the most affected.

Naurti, the former sarpanch of Harmara (Ajmer district), was classified as “illiterate”. She learnt how to use the computer at the age of 50 and teaches middle and high school leavers computer literacy. She uses the website of the Ministry of Rural Development. But she has no Class 8 certificate! Who is the more skilled among us is debatable. Of course, literacy is an essential tool, which is why the state has a basic responsibility to ensure that people have the right to education. However, the certificate of passing an exam may have little to do with real skills. Literacy, in any case, cannot be made more important than intelligence and ethics, which are native to the human species.

If literacy was a remedy to competent governance, then corruption should have reduced and people’s participation increased to demand ethical governance. The State governments as well as the Centre proudly tout formal learning as an unnecessary criterion in the choice of their Ministers! Like literacy, mandatory toilets and having no more than two children are arbitrary criteria only for panchayat elections and raise many unanswered questions. Does a panchayat member need to be more qualified than an MLA or an MP, 90 per cent of whose jobs require the written word, unlike that of the sarpanch, who deals with the human condition?

Indian society is highly patriarchal, and violence against women in various forms is increasing in society. On the one hand, there are the feudal elements that want to negate the independence and dignity of women, and on the other, there are capitalist developments that commoditise women’s bodies and identity. As an activist and as a woman, please elaborate on the challenges you encountered in the liberation struggles and empowerment of women.

Feminism is more than specific roles, although it is also that. In a world view where the market, militarism and warmongering feature at the top of the list, women have to face macho tendencies everywhere. The sale of arms and market mechanisms combine to define people as commodities, in which women suffer the most. The challenge is in language, idiom, dress, employment, relationships and all things else. Life itself becomes more difficult, including movement from place to place. Women are at the bottom of the list and an ageing poor woman has no space in society. It gets reflected in budget allocations, health and in job opportunities. In the marriage market, too, where the buying and selling of women has become common practice with all advertisements targeting dowries and glamourised weddings. Women suffer whether it is dowry or bride price. Sex-selective abortions show how extreme and prevalent this attitude is. Revival of regressive social practices has further compounded matters. Witch-hunting, khap panchayats and love jehad are whipped up by a government claiming progress.

Why did you decide to quit the IAS and move to social activism? What and who inspired you to become a social activist? How do you reflect upon your life as a social activist?

All bureaucracies work for the status quo. Any attempt to change must come from the world outside. The IAS is trained to make policy work, and at best it may be able to suggest policy and what should be done to strengthen constitutional principles. When those principles themselves are set aside by the combine of politicians, vested interests and a pliable civil service, the road outside offers more possibilities to work logic through, even if one has to struggle. There is more reality and less rhetoric, and you are your own conscience keeper.

Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are fellows at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and contribute to various national and international publications including The Indian Express, The Wire and Monthly Review. The writers can be reached at and

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