Canacona (Goa) : Former IAS officer turned social activist Aruna Roy, known for snowballing the right to information demand in India, has urged editors from South Asia to support citizens’ campaigns and to give “space to dissent” to widen democracy in the subcontinent.
Roy, who was an IAS official for seven years before quitting to immerse herself in social campaigns, made this plea before a South Asian editors’ roundtable here. About 20 senior editors from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka came together for the UN-Oxfam organised conference on ‘Realising South Asia’s Full Potential’.
Roy praised media persons for supporting campaigns over issues like the right to information (RTI) in India.
In 2005, India got a nationwide Right to Information Act, which fairly effectively empowers citizens to access a wide range of information earlier barricaded behind laws framed largely by a colonial administration.
Speaking at the meet held here Thursday, 61-year-old Roy highlighted the role played by prominent media persons in print and the electronic media, right since the start of the RTI campaign in 1994.
She specifically named journalists like Kuldip Nayyar and the late Nikhil Chakravarty and Prabash Joshi for their support of the RTI Campaign, and recalled that the first draft of the RTI law was proposed by the Press Council then headed by Justice P.B. Sawant.
“You (in the media) might sometime become an activist. I might be a person who comes to support you,” she said, pointing to the need for more trust between editors and social activists.
Roy voiced concern over what she saw as the shrinking space devoted to the Indian poor. “Some 70 percent of India occupies five percent of print space, and 10 percent of India occupies the remaining 90 percent,” she said, alleging growing elitisation of newspapers.
South Asia is home to nearly half of the world’s poor — 500 million of the region’s 1.5 billion people live on less than one dollar a day.
But she had a good word to say about how the media highlighted issues like the debate over the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and also wider related issues related to development.
“Your contribution in getting the laws (employment guarantee and RTI) passed was not small. It was as important as that of the people who sat on the ground and took part in rallies,” she added.
Roy argued against treating economists as “today’s gods”. She acknowledged that activists can sometimes be “shrill”, but said there was a reason for this, because otherwise campaigners “simply don’t get heard”.
She urged the media not to push dissent “into the corner”. Roy told editors from across South Asia: “We do not want an activist India, nor do we want just an MNC, commercial-managed India. What we want is a country run on common sense.”
Roy said her network was now focussing attention on a campaign for judicial accountability in India and pointed to the case filed against the Mid-Day tabloid. “If you can’t report something that’s happening, it’s ridiculous,” she said.
Winner of the Ramon Magasaysay Award for community leadership, the Rajasthan-based campaigner called for making the “powerful truthful and the truthful powerful”. She said the media and campaigners needed this as a “common agenda”.