Monday, May 12, 2008

Aruna Roy's talk at IISc

Democracy as Common Sense

Democracy is supposed to reflect the will of the people. Often people say that majority rule does not necessarily result in decisions that ensure common good. The opportunity to make informed choices, depends on the access to information,and place it in the public domain. In India today, competing and contradictory priorities of different sections of society, places conflicting and selective sets of information for the ordinary citizen to choose from. The more powerful use partial information, often to justify the decisions in their favour. For the marginal and less powerful, truth is the only recourse, based on hard facts and irrefutable realities. The Right to Information , common sense combined with a commitment to public ethics, becomes an important means of ensuring justice.

In the context of the overwhelming importance and power of the market and profits, even science is under constant threat of becoming a tool of commercial interests. The RTI therefore becomes vital to remove the ambiguities that arise when the use of science and scientific enquiry are pre-decided by a set of people only interested in private gain. Even within the RTI law, there is an interesting priority accorded to the public interest over ride, when all other considerations of trade secrets and commercial interests can be set aside.

That's from the abstract of a fascinating talk by Ms. Aruna Roy, co-founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (Workers'-Farmers' Unity Union), and a key architect of the Right to Information Act - 2005. While one could find several online pieces that cover some or all of her talk's themes (here, for example), listening to Roy in person is a great experience; the intensity of her commitment and passion is very inspiring.

The talk was peppered with anecdotes about the various interesting ways in which the RTI Act has been put to use by people from all kinds of backgrounds. According to Roy, the RTI Act and the NREG Act are important milestones in our country's progress because of their emphasis on empowerment: RTI empowers people by giving them a tool with which they can hold their representatives accountable, and NREG empowers (poor) people by allowing them to lead a life of dignity.

Roy ended her talk with two quotes; the first one was in Hindi (which I didn't get), and the other one is from Jeremy Cronin of the South African Communist Party. Since I didn't take it down, I did a Google search for the key phrases. Here it is:

"Speak truth to power," was Palestinian thinker Edward Said’s injunction to intellectuals. But the challenge to thinkers goes beyond that, says Jeremy Cronin ... "How do you make truth powerful — and, if possible, power truthful?” he asked ...

Roy's talk was organized by Concern, an IISc student group with a keen interest in generating a debate on social issues in our community. This group has been doing a wonderful job over the years by getting many, many public intellectuals to visit our campus and share their ideas with us.


  1. Tintu said...

    Like Medha Patkar Aruna is also an Opportunist Woman. Where was the need to bring her version of lokpal and create chaos.Already she is a member of NAC, she should work for eradication of corruption from NAC, why does she have to indulge in drama of draft lokpal? Such people are the biggest parasites of this country, no one should disturb their comfort zone, let the common man keep on suffering till eternity. Nonsense.