ARUNA ROY, the Right to Information activist and Magsaysay Award winner, is back in the National Advisory Council (NAC). Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:
What, according to you, should be on top of the NAC agenda?
The immediate issues to consider are legislation on food entitlement and prevention of communal violence.
How would you assess the importance of the NAC?
It is common coin that important legislation like the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Rights Act, and the Domestic Violence Act, which were promises made in the national Common Minimum Programme, were passed in two years by Parliament. The RTI is a powerful Act, and without the advocacy of the NAC, it would have been stalled by the bureaucracy.
Does it not reflect badly on an elected government that it requires an institution to propel policies and programmes for the poor?
There is a lacuna in the current democratic structures, which prevents people from participating in policymaking. Hopefully, the NAC can create and institutionalise certain platforms through consultation. It could also be argued that democratic institutions are themselves to be facilitated and that such platforms can enable people's voices to be channelled and focussed on the details of important policy formulations. Given the encouragingly high levels of understanding that exist in India on almost every issue, it can also enable continual monitoring of policy implementation.
The NAC is headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Knowing her influence on the government, does it not pose a danger of becoming a super Cabinet, encroaching on the authority of the Prime Minister's Office?
The NAC is an advisory body set up to draw from a wide range of opinion and help the government to make informed choices. An advisory body cannot become a super Cabinet. As chairperson of the ruling coalition, Mrs Gandhi has the power to influence policy even without the NAC. In fact, decision-making can be made even more transparent and accountable. This is true as long as the NAC functions within the democratic paradigm and adheres to transparency and accountability as regards its own functioning.How does the bureaucracy treat the NAC?
The reaction of the bureaucracy to the NAC depends on how much they welcome a process that demands both transparency and accountability.
Despite its popularity with the people and its creative use to improve governance, resistance to the RTI still continues, with periodic attempts to amend the Act.
NAC-I made landmark achievements like the RTI, the NREGA and the FRA. What should we expect now?
The right to food legislation, the communal violence Bill and a review of the development outreach in tribal areas are on the anvil. The greater expectations are that by opening up the process of decision-making, legislation and policies that reflect people's needs will be prioritised.Purnima S. Tripathi