The Aruna Roy Solution for the Medha Patkar Problem

Tuesday, 27 February 2007
Parth J Shah
CFO Connect

Muster rolls of public work projects are notoriously abused. Many who are on the official worker list are not actually working on the site and several who are working are not on the roll. Aruna Roy and her organisation MKSS (Majdur Kissan Shakti Sangathan) in Rajasthan took up this issue. The activists would visit a public work site, get a copy of the official muster roll and then verify it, exposing the corruption. After some long battles and initial success, they began to visit more and more sites.

Like any successful start-up, Aruna Roy faced the problem of scaling up. The issue of scaling up is critical for businesses or social change non-profits. The muster roll abuse was not only in a few government projects in some villages of Rajasthan, it is in almost every project across the country.

She could have taken any of the standard routes to scale up.

  • Expand MKSS: open branches across the country, hire several thousand people, ask the government and even the corporates to fund this great initiative. MKSS would have become a large NGO, possibly with several crore rupee budget.
  • Follow a decentralised model: encourage and empower other groups across the country to take on the cause. We would later discuss the model that she did follow.

Medha Patkar has been working to secure the rights of project affected people. How does one assure adequate compensation and rehabilitation to people displaced by developmental projects like dams, highways, factories, SEZs? She spent more than 20 years for the victims of the Narmada dam. Today she has to go on hunger strike in Orissa, West Bengal, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand. How many places could she possibly be present at one time? How could she scale up the efforts of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)?

Both Aruna Roy and Medha Patkar face the same challenge—identifying the real cause of the problem and then designing a solution of sufficient scale to attack whole of the problem.

Roy met the challenge not by expanding MKSS but by thinking of a completely new approach to the problem. She fought for RTI (Right to Information). For a new pubic policy that would grant a right to the people to get information about their government upon demand. She reasoned that by empowering each person to get a copy of the muster roll, any person with an interest in a local public work project could take up the cause.

Fundamentally there are two ways of addressing social problems: Direct action and (public) policy action. The first certainly has an important role to play, as in any emergency situation. But policy action impacts more people and typically solves the problem for the good.

By championing RTI—a new public policy--Roy transformed each citizen into a potential activist. She made each one of us a MKSS worker. In other words, she made MKSS almost redundant. Anyone could do what only MKSS workers did initially. Most importantly, she and MKSS are now free to move on, take on new problems and challenges.

Of course RTI helps solve problems much diverse and greater than those of the bogus muster rolls. That is the real power of the solution through public policy. Consider a few examples of the policy approach to solving problems.

Problem: The nexus between Bollywood and the underworld. Mahesh Bhatt for example borrows money from Dawood Ibrahim to make his films.

Policy Solution: Declare Bollywood as an industry so that it can access credit from financial institutions.

Problem: Long queues for school admissions, high fees and demands for donations.

Policy Solution: Remove the license raj in education (as we did in industry), allow for-profit schools, declare education an industry so that budget private schools could borrow to improve and expand. The direct action approach is generally to ban donations, cap fees, and regulate admission standards.

Problem: Endemic corruption in public services.

Policy Solution: Break the government monopoly and open up the service to competitive providers. Now the MTNL linesman has stopped knocking on my door, did this happen because his salary or consciousness was raised by Sri Sri Ravi Shakar?

The orgnisations that look at social problems through public policy lens are generally called think tanks (as opposed to do tanks). Direct action organisations like MKSS and NBA are well recognised for their activism and the role they play in social transformation. We need to understand the role and importance of think tanks in social change. Despite the common perception, the research, seminars and debates, publications, and advocacy by think tanks are not just for the amusement of a few academics. The power of policy ideas in improving society is truly incredible. India urgently needs many more independent think tanks to understand real causes of our problems and identify policy solutions that are effective, cost efficient, and sustainable.

Let me end in a think tank fashion with a question: So what is the Aruna Roy solution for the Medha Patkar problem?