February 22, 2015, 5:33 AM IST Manoj Mitta in Legal airs |  India  | TOI

Having played a key role in bringing about RTI and NREGA, Magsaysay awardee Aruna Roy has been battling attempts by the Modi regime to dilute these laws. Reviewing its eight months, she tells TOI that the govt needs to walk the talk on corruption, inclusive growth and protection of minorities:

In its counter affidavit in the Priya Pillai case, the home ministry named you as one of the activists who, unlike the Greenpeace activist, had never spoken against India before a foreign parliamentary committee. What’s your reaction?

This is a diversionary and mischievous distinction. Indian citizens have the right, in fact the duty, to raise issues of human rights violations. The location of discussion or advocacy is of little relevance, given the disproportionate influence of global capital and the reach of the internet. In order to protect human rights and amplify concerns of affected people, activists have the right to approach every possible platform, domestic and global. Priya Pillai had particular justification in accepting an invitation to speak to British parliamentarians, because Essar is a British company operating in India.

The people of Mahan have made complaints to the Indian government, and it is important that the British people and parliament be informed about how a British firm is violating norms in India.

Why should the Indian government be more concerned about a British company’s interests than of its own ecology, and the interests of tribal citizens? Taking ideological positions on FDI and so-called economic growth is not, in any case, IB’s mandate. Stopping Pillai from leaving the coun- try is doing more to damage India’s reputation as a functioning democracy.

Arvind Kejriwal had worked with you in the RTI movement. What is your take on AAP’s stupendous success in the Delhi election?

Part of the reason AAP won was because people believed it would answer the electorate’s search for a transparent and accountable government. AAP emerged from a civil society movement that began asking for accountability, but eventually felt that solutions lay in formal electoral politics.

Now that AAP has got this decisive mandate it will have to do its best to truly put these values into practice. Democratic functioning is demanding. The Delhi government will have to fulfil promises to various sectors and find the resources to do so. We all hope that they will be able to govern well and with transparent and participatory methods. The question that remains is whether AAP will tap the wealth of experience on these issues in civil society.

The Central Information Commission has been headless for over six months as appeals pile up. Is RTI suffering from benign neglect?

There is no justification for the government not appointing a chief information commissioner soon after taking office. The BJP government is hostile to social sector entitlements, but it made promises about acting decisively on issues of transparency and accountability. The record in its first eight months has been dismal not only on the issue of non-appointment of a chief information commissioner but also in failing to notify rules for the Whistleblower Protection Act and for not activating the Lokpal. People continue to be killed (two in Odisha last month) without any real recourse for protection. Even the passage of the grievance redress law has been ignored, though BJP leaders repeatedly supported it in Parliament and promised its passage on coming to power. This is not benign neglect, but active and de- liberate negligence, to weaken transparency and accountability measures.

In December, you organized a rally in Delhi against the dilution of MGNREGA. Has the government addressed your concerns?

However diluted, MGNREGA continues to be a lifeline for the rural poor in many parts of the country. The threat of closure has been averted and proposed amendments have been withdrawn, after protests. However, for MGNREGA and other basic social sector entitlements, it is real allocations that have to be looked at. In fact, if we really believe in “inclusive growth”, then the absolute minimum to be maintained is the ratio as a percentage of GDP. In 2009-10, MGNREGA expenditure was roughly 0.84% of GDP, and it fell to about a fourth of that amount at 0.22 % of GDP this year. We have to watch the budget this year through these parameters. This government is increasingly seen as pro-corporate and anti-poor. No government in India can remain in power for long with that kind of reputation.

But isn’t Swachh Bharat a laudable initiative?

Swachh Bharat is a laudable objective which will remain merely rhetoric unless credible mechanisms are created. This requires a high degree of perseverance, planning, and commitment not seen in enough measure to even call it a programme. Gandhi cannot be a symbolic brand or mascot, reduced to a broom! Swachhata has to extend beyond physical dirt and must be an effort to cleanse the Augean stables of corruption, caste-based hierarchies and untouchability that continue to plague India’s democracy.

Given your association with the citizens’ tribunal that probed the Gujarat 2002 violence, why do you think Modi took so long to break his silence on the growing threats to religious freedom?

The Gujarat violence was a deliberate attack on innocent people of a minority community for political gain. The string of bigoted comments and attacks on minorities that we have seen over the last eight months is disturbing. Public opinion has finally pushed the PM to make some conciliatory remarks. However, the PM will have to follow his comments with proactive and exemplary action before these assurances gain any credibility.