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Aruna Roy

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The Nuance Activist

Few people ever make it to the Indian Administrative Services, the prestigious Indian civil services that form the backbone of Indian governance. Even fewer leave it.

But then Aruna Roy’s entire life has been fairly unorthodox. Born in Chennai, her life choices reflect the liberal attitude of her free-thinking parents. The family moved to New Delhi by the time she was four, where she studied at the Convent of Jesus and Mary for the next 5 years. Then, her father decided it was time for her to learn her own culture and enrolled her at Kalakshetra, a prestigious art school at Adayar, Madras where she learned art, dance and classical music; she was then sent to the unusual Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, followed by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Delhi. In a move typical of Aruna, she later chose to major in English literature, to round off her varied, unconventional schooling.

She quit the IAS in 1974 to join the Social Work and Research Centre in Tilonia, Rajasthan, set up by her husband Sanjit Roy, and later called it her true “alma mater”, like going to university all over again. She lived in villages, operated on shoestring budgets, met and overcame local resistance and, in 1983, set up the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana, which today has become an example of a fully transparent, accountable organization. She also triggered a broad debate and nationwide demand for the public’s right to scrutinize official records. That movement went on to lay the foundation for the Right to Information act, a crucial check against arbitrary governance. The MKSS, in the over 25 years of its existence has been instrumental in taking up everything from human rights and women’s rights issues in Rajasthan to local ‘jan sunwais’ or ‘public hearings’ on social issues and more.

In 2000, Aruna was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for Community Leadership and International Understanding

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