Event Summary: Poverty and the Right to Know

October 28, 2004

Aruna Roy, one of India’s leading social activists, spoke at the Brookings Institution Thursday as part of a panel discussing the progress of the right-to-information movement in India and around the world. “The right to know is the right to live,” Roy said.

Roy began her career with the prestigious Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the branch of India’s civil service responsible for administration of all levels of India’s government. After seven years with the IAS, Roy resigned her position and began a groundbreaking career as a social activist in Rajasthan, India. She spent the next 10 years with a development organization working on issues such as education, gender, health, handicrafts, and rural employment.

“We need to know what our governments are doing and that what they are doing is honest,” Roy said. “The lack of information denies us food, minimum wage, medicine, and a hospital.”

Roy discussed several successes in her struggle for a more transparent society, including various right-to-information campaigns and sit-ins. In 1990, she and several colleagues established the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (MKSS) to strengthen participatory democratic processes and collectively fight the exploitation of peasants and rural workers in Rajasthan. In 2000, Roy received the Ramon Magsaysay award for Community Leadership (sometimes referred to as the Asian Nobel Prize). In making the award, the Magsaysay’s Board of Trustees recognized the work Roy and the MKSS had done to empower Indian villagers to demand social justice through the exercise of their right to information.

Both Roy and National Security Archive Executive Director Thomas Blanton said that India has become a more just and democratic society and they worried that the United States was not following a similar trend line.

“We’re facing a lot of bad news in this country,” Blanton said. “We were the world’s leader on freedom of information and open government. I would say we’re not today.”

Both criticized the Patriot Act for restricting civil liberties and encouraging government secrecy. “The Patriot Act gave a signal to other countries that they can do what they want with terrorists,” Roy said. “It’s not that terrorists shouldn’t be punished, but rather that innocent people shouldn’t be victimized.”

The panel remained confident that governments around the world would continue to make themselves more transparent. Ultimately, panelists agreed, people have the power to collectively force the hand of governments to make a change.

“We have to own governance, own institutions,” Roy said. “We can no longer see them as enemies. We have to use democracy better and set things right.”