Aruna Roy, a name synonymous with social activism, grassroots empowerment, and unwavering commitment to justice, was born on June 6, 1946, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. Her remarkable journey from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) to becoming a torchbearer of people's rights is a testament to her dedication to creating positive change in Indian society.
Aruna Roy's early life was anything but ordinary. Born into a family of Tamil Brahmins, her upbringing was unconventional for the times. Her family rejected orthodox beliefs about caste and religion, embodying a commitment to egalitarian principles. Aruna's family history was rich with public service; her maternal grandmother was deeply involved in volunteer social work among impoverished communities, while her maternal grandfather, an engineer, was also engaged in social work and education.
Her mother, Hema, was a multi-talented woman who excelled in various subjects, including physics, mathematics, classical Sanskrit, and sports. Her father, Jayaram, was a lawyer who actively participated in the Indian independence movement and eventually became a civil servant.
Aruna's education was equally diverse. She was trained in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music at the Kalakshetra Academy, attended a convent school, and learned French. After a year at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, she moved to New Delhi, where she completed her education at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and later pursued her post-graduation at the University of Delhi.
In 1967, Aruna Roy took the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) examinations, aiming to work for social justice within a constitutional framework. Her decision to join the male-dominated civil services was a feminist choice, deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy.
As a civil servant, Aruna was posted in various roles in Tamil Nadu and Delhi. She served as a Sub-Divisional Magistrate and later as the Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. However, her initial idealism and aspirations for change within the system gradually waned.
She found the bureaucracy to be entrenched in colonial values and hierarchical structures, leading her to conclude that change from within was nearly impossible due to institutional resistance. Corruption in the system, both in the form of graft and decision-making, further disillusioned her.
Aruna Roy decided to leave the civil services and used her experience to build a network of educated and influential people committed to change.
In 1974, Aruna Roy joined her husband, Sanjit Roy, at the Barefoot College, which was established for the social and economic development of Tilonia, a rural village in Rajasthan. Here, she encountered a significant shift in lifestyle and perspective, as she was exposed to the challenges faced by rural communities.
Living in a village without electricity, public transportation, or access to basic amenities, she realised the importance of an ascetic lifestyle. Her time at the Barefoot College broadened her understanding of rural realities and the significance of traditional knowledge.
Under her husband's guidance, the Barefoot College became known for introducing technologies like solar power to rural villages and educating residents about their operation.
Between 1983 and 1987, Aruna Roy worked with various tribal and women's groups in Rajasthan and neighbouring states. During this period, she began encouraging collective action among rural communities.
In 1985, she organised the Mahila Mela (Women's Festival) in Rajasthan, focusing on the issues of poor rural women. The festival marked a shift in attitudes towards violence against women and laid the blame on the perpetrators, rather than the victims.
In 1987, she, along with like-minded associates, moved to the village of Devdungri, Rajasthan, with the intention of building a new organisation for grassroots empowerment. This move would mark a significant shift in perspective and a renewed commitment to creating a platform for collective action.
On May 1, 1990, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), or Workers' and Peasants' Power Collective, was founded with Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, and Shankar Singh as its core leaders. The organisation aimed to mobilise collective action and secure the rights of the rural poor without being affiliated with any political party.
The MKSS operated as a non-bureaucratic, non-hierarchical, and non-formally structured organisation. It had a core group, regular participants, and a broader support base, ensuring a commitment to ethical principles and non-corruption.
The MKSS initiated the concept of "People's Hearings" to hold the government accountable for its actions. These hearings allowed marginalised communities to voice their grievances and demand their rights directly from government officials.
The MKSS's initial fight for fair wages evolved into a larger struggle for the enactment of India's Right to Information (RTI) Act. Aruna Roy played a crucial role in the RTI movement, which culminated in the passage of the RTI Act in 2005. This landmark legislation granted citizens the power to access information held by public authorities.
Aruna Roy continued her activism, championing the rights of the poor and marginalised. Her endeavours included campaigns for the Right to Work (NREGA), the Right to Food, universal, non-contributory pensions for unorganised sector workers, and the Whistleblower Protection Law and Grievance Redress Act.
She also served as a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC) and was appointed the 2016 Professor of Practice in Global Governance at McGill University in Montreal.
In 2018, Aruna Roy, along with the MKSS collective, published a book chronicling the history of the Right to Information movement in India titled "The RTI Story: Power to the People."
Aruna Roy's remarkable contributions to social activism have been recognised through several awards and honours. She received the Times Fellowships Award in 1991 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2000. In 2010, she was honoured with the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academia, and Management. Time magazine also named her one of the hundred most influential people in the world in 2011.
Aruna Roy's journey from a civil servant to a prominent social activist showcases her unwavering commitment to social justice, grassroots empowerment, and the rights of the marginalised. Her work has left an indelible mark on the landscape of social activism in India, inspiring countless others to champion the cause of justice and equality.