– Also gives a Distinguished Lecture on Democratic Governance – A Contemporary Discourse

The University of Hyderabad (UoH) awarded the Honorary Doctorate to Smt. Aruna Roy, well-known Political and Social activist on 9 January 2014. The Chancellor of UoH Dr. C H Hanumantha Rao presented the award to her at the packed DST auditorium on the University campus in the presence of Prof. Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, VC; Prof. E Haribabu, Pro VC; Prof. Aloka Parasher-Sen; Dean, School of Social Sciences and Prof. B Raja Shekhar, Registrar of UoH.


Smt. Aruna Roy is a leading voice in people’s struggle for the Right to Information (RTI), employment and food security in our country. Coming from a family with progressive ideals, she learnt organizing social activities under the guidance of her father, a lawyer and civil servant. She joined the civil service as an IAS officer in 1968 but resigned in 1974, seeing the status quo policies of the Indian bureaucratic system as a hurdle in the process of delivering social and economic justice to the poor of India. Aruna ji founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information that culminated in 2005 the RTI Act. These are among her most important contributions and have empowered the common man like never before. She has been instrumental in the formulation of several rural developmental policies including the MGNREGA. Your fight against corruption at the uppermost levels has resulted in the formulation of an alternative Lokpal Bill. Her efforts have been recognized through the Ramon Magsaysay award in the year 2000 for Community Leadership and in 2010 the prestigious Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academia and Management. She has immensely influenced the academia, particularly in the fields of Political Science, Public Administration and Human Rights, and have been a great source of inspiration to young scholars. In recognition of her  notable contributions UoH has honoured Dr. Aruna Roy with the Degree of Doctor of Literature (honoris causa).


later Smt. Aruna Roy gave a Distinguished Lecture on “Democratic Governance – A Contemporary Discourse”.

The excerpts of her lecture are given below.

Democratic Governance – A Contemporary Discourse

The challenge to the Indian Constitution in a Neo Liberal World

 Till 20 years ago most of us in the world of social activism dismissed governance as a non-issue. In the early days of the RTI movement MKSS was often critiqued for engaging with issues of governance. There were two aspects to this critique: The first was that asking for transparency and accountability were an esoteric concern of seminar rooms and bureaucrats. The other critique was that radical change will only come after a complete change in the regime. The government was seen as an enemy to be battled with, and the claim that it should perform for us dismissed as a syndrome of dependence which under mined self reliance. If a government was formed by a party that was ideologically inimical, questions were raised about almost any form of engagement. Behind both these critiques were the two binaries that continue to dominate thought and language, even though political engagement has changed.

Breaking down these twin binaries – a) of poverty and governance, and b) of radical revolutionary change all in one shot, or continual struggle, and incremental change through engagement have been an important part of our evolving journey.  We argued that in a democracy, we need to own the government as the single largest institution paid for and maintained by tax payers money. It must work for us within the constitutional framework. The widespread acceptance of this discourse is because of the RTI, its use and campaigns helped ordinary people to lay claim over the centres of power and decision making in government. We also realized and argued that transparency and accountability were transformatory rights linked to issues of poverty and injustice, and democratizing governance had to become a part of the struggle for economic and social equality. Political change is a result of deliberate efforts, and critical analysis is crucial to the fostering of the processes of change. As we stand at another churning point in our electoral politics, we need to understand where many of these processes originated, and how they developed. While we use the energy that is generated to carry processes forward, we also need to make sure that we do not get lost in the temporary euphoria of the manifestation of change.

The need to protect the non party political space is therefore crucial at a time when many of  the votaries of that space are seeking to enter electoral politics. Only then will the binary of “inside and outside” be overcome in a way that allows democracy to function in a participatory manner. Similarly, the binary of poverty and governance will have to be broken down, to ensure that economic, social, and political equality are fostered in a synergetic and politically astute and rational manner.

…A feudal social structure and a political democracy

……Questioning a power centre was almost impossible. With this law, questioning gained legitimacy and repression more difficult. Distinct from revolt and disruption, and accorded sanctity as a right; it was the thin edge of the wedge shaping the context of  participation as a part of democratic process and action.

……The RTI as a fundamental right, has redistributed power. It has also empowered other campaigns with valid data, to form public opinion. It is a transformatory Act which enables the use of all Constitutional rights. The feudal role of patronage could eventually be discarded.

……The MKSS was born out of a peoples understanding that a democratic system demands engagement with governance. Any attempt to transform rights into services needs transparency and accountability of the system. Transparency and accountability prepares grounds for participatory governance. The Gandhian heritage of “peoples movements” gave the people a structure and a process of engaging with politics, seen through the prism of ethics and principles.

…..In the public domain persistent efforts to use information to showcase  the gap between promise and delivery shifted the discourse from indifference to public spending – , “sarkar ke paisa hamara nahin hai, jalne do” ( government money isn’t our money, let it burn”), articulated in 1974-5 when I first went to the village to “hamara paise hamara hisab” 1996 “.Information is indeed power. But it is also powerful in motivating and  compelling citizens to  understand governance.

The bureaucratic strangle hold

……A system of governance should be a bulwark of the democratic system. Unfortunately, it has in most cases become the perpetrator of inequality and arbitrariness. The common manifestation of this is corruption, and arbitrary use of power its flip side.

……I knew that the system of governance should be a dialectic between the people and those who made governance their business. But the inherent inequality in the relationship dominated by every kind of discrimination, made either political exigency or personal gain the motivator for most actions. The exceptions only proved the rule.

Political manifestations

…In the middle of this sharply divided and discriminating social structure, corruption and misuse of privilege were issues which provoked public anger. The rhetoric of anti-corruption was similar, across class and caste, and therefore provided some space for collective action in an otherwise divided society. The initial years of the RTI struggle of the MKSS and its campaign the NCPRI,( 1992-1987) shaped its discourse on corruption and the arbitrary use of power, where discrimination and inequality were part of the debate.

…..The vote became the tool and the symbol of guaranteed accountability. It addressed Ambedkar’s concerns about transforming political power into economic and social power, and government’s constitutional responsibility. It was seen as important and  capable of pushing government towards greater accountability

……In a now famous RTI song of Charul and Vinay Mahajan (2004) called Janne ka haq the lyric connects access to peoples needs with information. One couplet says :                       

Mere vote ko janne ka haq hai,

                        Ek Din bade bade vade, Phir panch saal kaam nahin

Unpackaging Power

……In recent times huge mobs of politically powerful segments of society have got together to twist the arm of governments, and even at the cost of innocent lives made demands that are contested and controversial. The big challenge to governance is to be able to deal with such incidents keeping justice intact and gathering courage to face unpopularity and deal with the iniquity of an unprincipled majority calling the shots. The fear of this misuse of democracy through “majoritarianism” ; when a majority misuses collective bargaining for unprincipled stands, violates the guarantees of equality and justice. This is a nightmare that has haunted Indian democracy. It has made periodic appearances, to threaten the right to live with equality and justice. It distorts and misinforms,  catches the imagination of the majority and validates its  democratic existence, by real or manufactured consent. The constitution, hardly ever read or followed in letter and spirit, has, from time to time itself become the object of attack, and subject of controversies. The deliberate misinterpretation of the word “secular” in the Indian Constitution is a case in point.

In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” ― George Orwell

On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. …………………..If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of democracy which this Constituent Assembly has so laboriously built up.

…One of the most telling examples of systematic, repeated, constant and deliberate neglect of economic and social equality resulted in the emergence of formations of people to demand fulfillment of promises. Most of the conflict in the tribal areas, the violence of extremist formations can be traced to 60 odd years of neglect of governance to deliver the most basic of minimums.

….This is a good time to look at the framework for India’s democratic governance and how it has been affected by processes above and below. There is no doubt that the internationally mandated neo-liberal framework of economic globalization that has come since the early 90s has radically altered power relationships – particularly those that are affected by economic inequalities. This new system, sees growth as un unadulterated virtue with almost no concern about distribution and growing inequalities that might accompany it.

It is also clear that if Ambedkar were to comment on the future of constitutional democracy in India, he would align himself with the forces  below that have worked hard to reduce the inequalities which he had so powerfully enunciated at the time of adoption of the Constitution. The future of India lies in deciding which path to pursue.

Social Policy and Movements

…..The singular achievement of movements has been their sustained and steady impact on social policy. Not only have they pressured government to pass legislations, but they have been participant from the drawing board to rigorous interaction with parliamentary committees. In that process many important pro-poor and social security legislations have been passed. The people involved have grown, learning as they went along- the detailing and formulation of legislations, a dialectic and critique. It is this constant engagement that produced the RTI, the MGNREGA, the Forest Rights Act, the Domestic Violence Act, the NFSB, etc .  

The political alternative and alternative politics

………………….. What also needs to be understood are the new and unique strategies adopted by the AAP which have led to their electoral success. However, the bigger question that needs to be asked relates to change in modes of governance and power relationship in society. Civil society groups even though of different hues have been straight forward about their concerns, priorities, and ideological frameworks. The AAP has consciously avoided laying out a broader framework. It remains to be seen what the effect of this deliberate departure would be on the potential to achieve stated objectives of a corruption free and ethical society. At first glance, even the definition of what is corruption and what the norms of ethics , become opaque in the absence of an ideological framework. Will the AAP also attempt to carry into governance lessons from people’s movements and grass root activism so that hard decisions of change are carried through to their logical conclusion. Populism and majoritarianism once again will intersect with the idea of “people’s choice”, referendums and mohalla sabhas.

A conclusion which is but a beginning

As we stand here, we are sure that rights of people and their constant engagement and vigilance, interfacing with a political party both transparent and accountable, may shape a better future. Populism or success must be tempered by the willingness to take unpopular but just decisions, if fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution  have to become a reality, and  poverty and injustice get addressed through the system. A continual critique must be sustained through the movements, and governance should be open engage with people and respond. If this begins, governance will work to narrow differences and make itself more accountable. We can only hope.

Aruna Roy, arunaroy@gmail.com