Development is the only way to tackle Naxalism, Magsaysay award winner and activist Aruna Roy tells Sreelatha Menon
What do you think about the use of Air Force against Naxalies in Chhattisgarh?
I am totally against it. I feel extremism is a result of failure of development. If the government does not address the issue in terms of development, it won’t be able to solve it. I have a suspicion that the government wants to clear the place for mining. What they do in the name of acting against Naxalism is to remove all opposition. People who are Gandhians are being prosecuted. Why did they put Binayak Sen in jail? He was not an extremist.
What are your views on Naxalites? Are they not opportunists who are depriving people of development for their survival?
I am not against Naxalites. I need to learn more about them. But in tribal areas, the choice for the people is between RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) and Naxalites. If pushed to the wall, you do drastic things. In Chhattisgarh, how many tribals are making policy? In Jharkhand, the tribal chief minister has been cooped. When the state uses violent methods, it is unjustified. Besides, tell me, what was the government doing for the last 60 years and why did it all of a sudden wake up to Naxalites?
What is your view on terrorism?
The only solution is to make the system work, for which transparency is needed. There is failure of governance. Second, terror should not be pre-defined as a community. Judiciary should play a key role here. Violations of equality should be treated as violations of the Constitution or else there will be balkanisation of the country.
You, along with Jean Dreze, gave a dissent note on a series of issues concerning the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP). Why did you object to the government deploying NGOs (non-government organisations) as lok sewaks?
I am personally against this. It is one thing to have NGOs or anyone else voluntarily acting as a facilitator. But the moment you give work on contract to an NGO, there is no accountability. There is no way to know who is honest. Besides, NREGP can’t be used to pay the huge salaries marked for lok sewaks. Secondly, NREGP can’t be handed over to NGOs. The government may feel that the panchayat system has failed to deliver. But I feel we should look at this in detail.
Are you against NGOs being there at all in NREGP, especially since a large reason for the scheme’s failure is ignorance of the beneficiaries?
NGOs can be used for technical guidance. But they can’t take on the responsibility of the government.
But what about NGOs that are involved in the social audit programme of the Andhra Pradesh government?
They are workers belonging to NGOs but recruited by the government and working with the government system.
What about the social audit programme you and other NGOs did this month in Bhilwada, the constituency of Rural Development Minister CP Joshi, or what you did earlier in Dungarpur?
We are doing it for the government. We are not being financed to do it. We did public hearings in Dungarpur, but not for money. Paid employees can’t audit government schemes. The fact of the matter is that any citizen can do a social audit. The government cannot stop anyone. But to be financed or contracted to do it is wrong. The Suchna Rojgar Abhiyan is a conglomeration of about 52 NGOs in Rajasthan. What we did in Bhilwada was done voluntarily. We were paid for just travel and food.
What did you achieve in the Bhilwada social audit campaign?
The government of Rajasthan is setting up its own social audit institution and one-third of the 2,000-odd people who were engaged in the audit and public hearings in the district were resource persons from the government. They will become social auditors. What we were doing was to train them. Social audits dig out information and put it before people and governments. It empowers people and leaves the government with no option but to take corrective action.
You have expressed reservations about the Rajiv seva kendras being built under NREGP The seva kendras per se are not bad. But why do it under NREGP when these centres are meant for all development schemes?
But won’t building these centres mean a lot of work for workers under the NREGP?
If you raise a building, a very small portion of the expense is for paying wages to labourers. In case of NREGP, 60 per cent funds are for payment of wages. In case of a big building, the wage bill will be as low as 20 per cent of the total cost.
You have also objected to including works like that of anganwadi workers or barefoot engineers under NREGP.
The government is planning to include skilled work under the NREGP. This matter came up for discussion at the National Employment Guarantee Council recently. More discussion is needed on this.
Has the government agreed to link the minimum wage under NREGP with the consumer price index?
This matter is in a mess and there are no easy solutions visible. For, linking Rs 100 to the consumer price index will yield different rates in different states. In many states, the minimum wage won’t even come to Rs 100. The government is also wary about states increasing wages as a populist measure.
You had expressed concern over converging work under other schemes with NREGP.
The government has agreed after one-and-a-half months of our struggle that only the labour component of other schemes will come from the NREGP. So, no one can make the NREGP pay for other schemes. They can just use the workers. That is one step forward.
What are your objections to an ombudsman for NREGP?
The ministry has asked states to appoint ombudsmen but I am not happy with the powers given to this post. For instance, how can an ombudsman have no power to impose penalties. Again, information submitted to the ombudsman is not to be disclosed. How can it not be disclosed? It is public money and the public needs to know.
You have spoken in favour of salaries for sarpanches.
The Rajasthan government has allowed an allowance of Rs 3,000 for sarpanches for implementing NREGP. But they have linked it with revenues of villages and so half the sapranches won’t get the money. An MLA is paid Rs 20,000. Why can’t a sarpanch be paid Rs 3,000? After all, he works much harder.