She's a tireless campaigner for India's millions of villagers. Aruna Roy, 56, has been fighting for a quarter-century to improve living standards by exposing the corruption and inefficiency of local officials. Her weapon: information.
A civil servant in New Delhi before turning to community work, Roy has been instrumental in persuading the legislatures of eight states, including Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Goa, and Tamil Nadu, to implement Right to Information Acts. Modeled in part on the Freedom of Information Act in the U.S., the laws give citizens the right to demand access to a wide range of government information, from municipal budgets to records of state purchases of everything from weapons to grain. That information has opened the way for villagers to improve their lot by shining a light on the squandering and diversion of subsidies and other resources intended to help them.
Roy's activism is making a difference. Now, villagers in the states where the Right to Information Act has been implemented are becoming adept at questioning bureaucrats about the disbursement of subsidies from New Delhi, as well as the use of other public funds. In Madhya Pradesh, citizens are making local authorities squirm by demanding to examine the books of the public works department. In Uttar Pradesh, meanwhile, locals have requested a public audit of the food distribution system. In New Delhi, the local electrical authority has been forced to fix streetlights that haven't glowed in years, crack down on power thieves, and open contracts to scrutiny. "They are saying, `this is our money.' It's a significant change," says Roy, who won the Ramon Magsaysay Award--Asia's Nobel prize--for her community service.
A Brahmin from Tamil Nadu, Roy spent seven years as a civil servant in the early 1970s before becoming a full-time activist. Her freedom of information campaign began after she discovered that bureaucrats in Devdungri, in northern Rajasthan, were stealing the wages of poor laborers. Roy still lives and works among the people, in a mud hut in Devdungri, but her ambitions are national. She is now pushing hard for the nationwide implementation of a Right to Information Act so all Indians can challenge public officials. "The right to information is our second fight for independence," says Roy. "Not against the British this time but [against] our own rulers." This feisty social activist won't quit until she has shaken up corrupt and inept governments across the land.