Aruna Roy’s Philanthropic Profile
Aruna also works with the Indian government as a part of the National Advisory Council, where she has become a voice for the masses. Through the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Aruna is able to promote public awareness of the corrupt practices and inefficient processes of local governments by publishing articles online, the one place where information transfer could not be limited or hindered.
Prior to entering the world of activism, Aruna worked as a civil servant for the Indian Administrative Service, which gave her the skills and experience she needed when she turned to community service. Aruna has been instrumental in persuading the legislatures of eight states in India, which include Tamil Nadu, Goa, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, in enacting the Right to Information Act in their own states.
Through her active participation in promoting the Right to Information, more and more people living in states where the Right to Information Act has been implemented have started to use their right to question the government and the bureaucrats regarding the use of subsidies and public funds.
Through Aruna’s work in pushing the enactment of the Right to Information Act, the citizens have been given the right to demand access to a wide area of government information—from municipal budget up to the records of state purchases. This encourages the common citizen to be involved in the governing of his locality, which is what democracy is all about.
Aruna’s dedication to help the lives of her fellow countrymen has greatly impacted the social and political sphere of her country. In addition to this, Aruna’s actions have set an example for other countries whose governments are withholding information from their citizens.
Due to her extraordinary accomplishments and influence in the social and the political realms of society, Aruna has received a number of accolades and awards, most notably the Ramon Magsaysay Award (which is widely known throughout the world as Asia’s Nobel Prize) and the prestigious Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award. These, among her other awards, have established Aruna as a world leader in promoting the right to information.
It is not so surprising why Aruna became truly well-known in her field of work. It is those who use unorthodox or uncommon methods that get them the attention of many; and it seems that Aruna’s unorthodoxy is not really something new in her family.
Aruna’s maternal grandparents were both Brahmins from the Southern parts of India, but they were of different subcastes—her grandmother was a lyer, while her grandfather was a lyengar. Her grandmother was active in philanthropic work—she visited lepers, poor people and abused women, and defended their rights, and dignity in whatever way she could. She eventually became an honorary magistrate, and actively worked up to her old age.
Aruna’s grandfather, on the other hand, was an engineer; he had such a strong sense of social justice, that he would sell his own authored textbooks at a cheaper price so that the poor can afford them. When Aruna’s grandparents met each other, they immediately fell in love. In spite of the objection of their castes, Aruna’s grandparents married each other. They taught their children to respect all levels of society—no class, no religion—offering hospitality to anyone who came to their home.
This mentality was what they instilled to their children, especially in Hema, Aruna’s mother, whom they sent to Christian schools to study despite the rules of their castes. Hema was a brilliant and intelligent student, well-rounded in almost every area of her studies—in academics, sports, and the extra-curricular.
She was around 25 when she finally allowed herself to get married after meeting Jayaram, a charming and amazing individual who came from a family of lawyers. Jayaram himself was a lawyer, and was also hailed as an exceptional student for his academic achievements.
Aside from belonging to a family of lawyers, Jayaram was also actively involved in social and political activists, often joining in the independence movement. Jayaram eventually worked in the government, first as a librarian in the Indian Government’s law department, then as a legal adviser to the Council of Scientific and Individual Research.
Aruna is Born in India
With both of them coming from liberal backgrounds, it was not long until Hema and Jayaram found that they had common interests. They became friends, and after some time, married each other. The couple had four children, of which Aruna was the eldest. She was born in Chennai in 1946, just a year after the close of the Second World War.
When Aruna was still very young, Hema and Jayaram moved the family to New Delhi, where she would spend most of her childhood. Because Aruna grew up at a time when India was starting to transition from being a British colony to an independent nation, she often witnessed demonstrations in her neighborhood.
One of the people who greatly impacted the lives of Aruna’s family was Mahatma Gandhi. Jayaram, Aruna’s father, held Gandhi in great respect, and often told his children stories of his hero. And though Aruna was very young when Gandhi was assassinated, she remembered him very well because of the emotional distraught brought by Gandhi’s assassination to their family. In interviews made with Aruna many years later, she would often say about Gandhi:
“He was a living memory when I was born. Gandhi was everywhere when I was young and in a sense he is today.”
Aside from Gandhi, Aruna also learned about M.N. Roy, an Indian communist that her father also admired. Both Roy and Gandhi influenced Aruna greatly, so much so that she would call them her heroes due to their amazing ability of being ‘true to themselves.’
Aruna and her siblings were raised by her parents as free thinkers, not bound by any rules or traditions. At a young age, both Jayaram and Hema made sure that their children did not grow up with any prejudices against any form of religion or art, and taught them to always keep an open mind and learn to appreciate the different ways on how various cultures express themselves. And even though Jayaram was an atheist and Hema was a Christian, they became examples to their children of what it meant to respect all religious beliefs; they celebrated both Christmas and the birth of the Buddha with their children, not discriminating on any form of religious celebration.
Aside from teaching their children social equality, Jayaram and Hema also instilled a sense of liberal thinking in their children through initiating lively discussions with them on the dinner table. In fact, in an interview made with Aruna years later, she remembered how her mother Hema often made a jest about putting a sign outside their house that said, “If you can’t argue, please don’t enter.”
Aside from teaching them the importance of social equality, Jayaram and Hema also immersed their children in their country’s own culture. At a very young age, Aruna learned to speak English, Tamil, and Hindi. She also had different books read to her by her parents, and was exposed to listening to classical and veena music from all parts of India. The classical music from the northern, western, and southern parts of India was influenced by her father Jayaram, while veena music was influenced by her mother Hema. Due to this, she learned Carnatic (South Indian) classical singing at a young age.
Aruna’s Early Biography
Aruna was also taught how to read at a very young age, a passion that she never outgrown. She was such an avid reader that when she was very young, while all of her friends were playing outside, Aruna would sit at home and read any book she could get her hands on. Because there were so many books in their house, Aruna was exposed to almost all types of literature. In addition to this, her father Jayaram also brought books home from the library for his children to read.
There was so much literary freedom given to Aruna that she grew up reading books from almost all cultural backgrounds—Aesop’s fables, Baba Yaga, and the Panchatantra.
Aruna had her first taste of school when she was three and a half years old. While visiting with her family to Madras for a vacation with her grandparents, Aruna was enrolled by her father to a nearby Catholic convent. Upon their return to New Delhi, Aruna enrolled at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a conservative Catholic school run by English and French nuns.
Along with many other Indian children, Aruna spent the next five school years being taught by the kind and caring nuns, who she remembers with all fondness, especially the teacher from France who often pasted gold and silver stars of excellence on Aruna’s notebook, who was then the French teacher’s only Indian pupil. All of Aruna’s teachers were very fond of her for being a brilliant student—not only was she able to quickly catch up, Aruna was also inquisitive and knew how to start a good conversation.
After graduating from the convent, Jayaram sent Aruna to study at Kalakshetra, a well-known school of art based in Madras. The school was founded by Rukmani Devi, a strong-willed revolutionary who married a Russian theosophist. It was a multi-cultural school, and welcomed all races, whether Indians from the country or from abroad, or foreigners.
Aruna spent two years studying in the school, and learned a great deal about the arts, Indian classical dances (also known as the Bharatanatyam), and Indian Carnatic classical music. Aside from wanting his daughter to learn more about her own culture, Jayaram enrolled Aruna at Kalakshetra because he was greatly influenced by the figures of the Theosophical Society of India, to which the school was affiliated with.
Upon Aruna’s completion of her study in Kalakshetra, she was enrolled by Jayaram at the Aurobindo Ashram School, which was based in Pondicherry. Although the school boasted of having a flexible structure, it did not appeal to Aruna, and after studying a year in the school, she left and studied at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. This school in New Delhi was established by K.M. Munshi, a well-known Indian educator, who believed in Indianizing education.
To teach its students a love for their own country was the driving force of the school. Although the language used in instruction was English, there was much emphasis placed on the culture of India. It was during Aruna’s time in this school that her love for the country and her fellow Indians further developed as the result of teachings that she received. She eventually completed her high school education in that school.
Upon entering her collegiate years, Aruna applied for the Indraprastha College in New Delhi. She studied English literature, something that surprised her family. When she was being interviewed for her admission, Aruna greatly surprised the school panel when she told them the books that she had read. Initially, the panel thought that Aruna was lying, because they did not believe that a 16–year–old girl would be able to read so many books. Eventually, after a lengthy narration of the things she read, Aruna managed to convince the panel of her intellect and brilliance.
Because the school was quite old-fashioned in their teaching methods, Aruna did not find much excitement in the extra-curricular activities that the school offered. However, she did spend a lot of time in the school’s library, reading anything that she could get her hands on—from history and philosophy to the works of Tolstoy and Shakespeare.
Of all the teachers who taught her in the college school, Aruna remembers two who greatly impacted her: the first was Rathi Bartholomew, who introduced her to Shakespeare, and the other was Sheila Uttamsingh, who introduced Aruna to War and Peace. Aruna graduated from school with high remarks and earned her bachelor’s degree in 1965.
Aruna Meets Bunker Roy
Soon after her graduation, Aruna entered the University of Delhi to continue her studies. It was here that she met her future husband, Sanjit “Bunker” Roy. His name was given to him due to the Bengalese habit of rhyming names. Sanjit was the captain of the university’s tennis team, and back then was India’s top squash player. He was born in Calcutta and like Aruna, came from a family of diverse cultural and religious background.
When Aruna and Bunker met, they immediately took a liking for each other, having a common ground, and eventually became good friends. They often helped each other with their studies and discussed a wide range of topics during their spare time. In 1967, Aruna finally received her master’s degree and left the university.
Aruna’s Career Profile
After she graduated from the university, Aruna was not so impressed about the life that awaited her. Like most Indian women, Aruna was expected to most likely become a homemaker, but she refused to settle for such life: Aruna knew that she had much in her, and she would regret it for the rest of her life if she did not follow her dream. And so, in spite of the limited options that were available to women, Aruna kept on looking for a kind of work where she knew she could make something of herself.
She eventually chose to work in public service, and that same year, took the Indian Administrative Services examinations at the age of 21. She passed the exam along with nine other women, and was sent to the Academy of Administration in the northern part of India for training.
While training at the academy, Aruna was somewhat of a rebel; she preferred the Gandhian simplicity as an ideal way of life in India, as opposed to the sophisticated guidelines on courtesies and etiquette based on an outdated British civil-servant’s handbook, something she found to be ridiculous. The academy also taught Aruna and her classmates basic administration, law, economics, and languages.
During her time in the academy, Aruna and her classmates managed to convince their proctors to sandwich a year of probation between the two six-month stints of formal training. This was also applied to the class that followed them.
After her training in the academy, Aruna was sent to Tamil Nadu in Southern India as an IAS officer. She initially started out as an apprentice for a collector (the term used for the heads of the district administration) at the rural district of Tiruchi; however, her collector did not want to take Aruna out on his rounds because he was afraid of what his wife might say when she saw him and Aruna. This greatly disappointed Aruna, who went to the chief secretary to request a transfer. Her request was readily granted, and Aruna was sent to the North Arcot district, which officially became her very first experience of living in a rural community.
As an IAS officer, she had substantial power and influence in the district, and was expected to assist in solving the district’s social issues. While Aruna initially believed that she was actually meeting the poor and listening to their voices, she soon realized that she did not even know half of what it meant to live life in the rural areas. Fortunately for Aruna, she was placed under the tutelage of T.V. Venketaraman, a collector who made a great impact on Aruna’s life by teaching her what it truly meant to become a public servant.
Among the things he taught Aruna was taking time in meeting someone, no matter what hour of the day it may be. “It may not take much time for the official to meet with the petitioner, but the petitioner himself may have travelled a long way just to get there to speak to the official.” These words struck a chord in Aruna’s heart, and kept her humble and approachable throughout her years of government service.
After leaving the tutelage of Venketaraman and becoming a full-fledged public servant, Aruna was assigned as a sub-collector in Pondicherry. She found her work a bit distasteful, due to the prevalence of hierarchical concepts in governance; she was often trapped into making decisions without first having enough information regarding the sub-district authorities. She would meet village commoners and elites, and sometimes even political figures, but Aruna felt that she never got to encounter the ones who were really in need: the poor.
Although she had a lot of misgivings about her work, she took it as a learning experience. Her parents taught her to always learn from every experience, no matter how bad it may seem. This enabled her to function very well at her work. Eventually, she took on higher responsibilities, which included taking charge of court cases and land records, collecting revenues, overseeing various departments’ works, and attending exhumations (something that she was squeamish about).
Aruna Resumes Contact with Bunker
In 1970, Aruna met with her longtime friend and lover, Sanjit Roy. They finally got married the same year in a simple ceremony. Sanjit devoted his life to helping the poor in India after witnessing the terrible life of suffering that the residents in Bihar experienced.
Prior to the wedding ceremony, Aruna and Sanjit made an agreement regarding several conditions that would govern their married life. First, they would not have any children to tie them down; second, they would not depend on each other financially; third, they would not impose their beliefs on one another; and finally, they would be free to do as they please.
A year after their marriage, Aruna requested a transfer to Delhi so she could be closer to her husband. Working as a sub-divisional magistrate in the heart of the national government, Aruna witnessed for herself the vast extent of corruption and kowtowing that prevailed across the country’s government.
Aruna Works for the Government of India
As Aruna moved higher into the government in 1973 (she was included in the Delhi administration as the deputy secretary for finance in the office of the chief secretary, then as the secretary of the lieutenant governor), she became more disillusioned on how the government was run: senior civil servants were currying favor with influential politicians to advance their own careers; the feudal system was preventing any meaningful change to occur in society; and the bureaucrats becoming aloof to the cries of the poor, who did not have access to their district’s officials.
Aruna also realized that a part of the problem was the common citizen did not know how to speak up for themselves and the civil servants were conditioned into thinking that they were above the common folk. Fortunately, Aruna found two people in the government who helped keep her believing that as long as there were good people who acted, change can happen. Those two people were S.R. Shakeran, the secretary of Rural Development; and M.K. Bezboruah, the secretary to the Tariff Commission. She admired both men for their simplistic lifestyle and their courage to speak out and fight corruption in their departments.
Leaving IAS for Social Work and Research Center
Aruna’s experience in dealing with corruption eventually led her to realize that she was limited to do public service in the government. And so, she carefully studied her options regarding the next phase of her career. There were two options: to remain at the IAS and continue her vain efforts in inciting change from ‘within,’ or to join her husband in his charitable work at the Social Work and Research Center, a foundation that he established in 1972.
Through the advice of her family and friends, as well as her experience in joining her husband in the SWRC (Aruna felt envious of her husband’s equality among the common folk, as opposed to her deferential treatment as a civil servant) Aruna was able to come to a decision to leave the IAS only after her brother finished college. In 1974, she left the IAS and worked with the SWRC.
Aruna’s initial experience in working with the organization proved quite challenging, due to the vast difference in both the mentality of her work and the environment of distrust surrounding her (this was due to her being a former civil servant, and the members of the organization thought that she was going to bureaucratize the SWRC). Eventually, through the encouragement of her husband, family and friends, Aruna was able to break through the barrier of indifference and prove herself worthy of being trusted by her fellow SWRC workers.
It was a drastic change for Aruna, as she had to totally change her way of thinking. From having the elite members of the society and powerful politicians as her audience, she now turned to entertaining people of the lower class and those who were truly poor and suffering. In all her efforts in making a real difference in the lives of the people she was working with, the thing that helped her empathize with them was her burning desire to live a simple and holistic life, something she learned from her parents and heroes.
Aruna learned a great deal in public service during her nine years of working with the SWRC. There, she learned the hands-on approach to helping society, applying her passion in service to one person at a time, as opposed to when she had a position in the government.
Aruna saw for herself the very things that caused people to hate the government, and became determined to make a change in the nation that will truly benefit the people. She also realized that having the ability to read and write was not the only way to tell whether a person is intelligent. She met people who did not have the luxury of being educated but were so quick at grasping the importance of things. She said:
“We call people who work with mud and earth, and sand and stone, unskilled labor in India. I cannot in this lifetime wield the implements that they use either to dig the earth or to shovel the earth. I can't carry the loads. That's extremely specialized. But they are called unskilled, and I am called skilled because I can write with the pen. I cannot accept this. I find it extremely non-egalitarian to say they are unskilled and I am skilled. It's only a way of looking at it. Knowledge is also like that.”
The Birth of the Workers and Peasants Strength Union in India (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan)
Aruna worked tirelessly to help those in need, empowering the women of her country to rise up to their calling in life—not just as housewives who had no power or influence in running their country, but actively participating in the country’s political and socio-economic system. Eventually, she found herself limited by the SWRC because the organization did not directly intervene with political issues.
Aruna desired to do more than help people in a small scale. She soon realized that there had to be real change in the political world if the whole country was to be affected. And so, in 1983, she left SWRC with her husband’s blessing and spent the next four years travelling across several countries to learn more about what could be done to incite real change.
In 1987, Aruna returned to India with Shankar Singh, a college graduate who worked with the SWRC, and his family. They met a few years earlier. They moved to Devdungri, a small village that Aruna described as ‘probably the worst place you could think of living.’ They spent the next two years working with the villagers, helping them with their lives by teaching, encouraging and empowering them to work together to attain a common goal: to prosper.
Aruna and her team treated everyone equally, regardless of what caste they were from. This won the hearts of the villagers, who welcomed Aruna wholeheartedly. In one instance, villagers from the nearby town of Sohangarh sought Aruna’s help about land disputes concerning a local landlord. After a lengthy campaign, the landlord gave control of the land to the villagers, who greatly thanked Aruna for her efforts in assisting them.
The success of this revolutionary act resulted in the creation of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (which meant “Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants”), which had 5,000 strong members.
The formation of the MKSS allowed Aruna to extend her reach to a greater portion of society. From the time of its inception, the MKSS grew steadily and powerful support from India’s middle and lower classes. In fact, even a substantial portion of the elite supported the MKSS, which increased their popularity and credibility.
The MKSS constructed numerous stores where people could afford household goods, causing the competitors to lower their prices to keep up with the demand. From its first store in 1991, the MKSS stores grew to around ten by 1995. Aside from engaging the community through their charitable acts and establishments, the MKSS also actively participated in the political sphere of India.
The Right of Information Act Passed
In 1994, Aruna and the MKSS initiated the jan sunwais concept (or public hearings), which helped them fight corruption in the government by promoting the right to information. From that time on, several hearings began to be conducted, with the people actively supporting the aims of the organization.
Through the MKSS activism, the Indian press garnered more support throughout the years. Aruna herself was at the forefront of the movement, and through their persistence in promoting the right to information the Congress party, under the leadership of Manmohan Singh, won the national elections in 2004. Aruna was inducted to be a part of the National Advisory Committee; through this newfound opportunity and influence, Aruna worked tirelessly to ensure that the right to information is given much attention, causing the Right of Information Act to be passed in 2005.
Ramon Magsaysay Awardee
Her efforts in ensuring an open and honest government, as well as promoting the welfare of those in need have earned Aruna much credibility and reputation as one of the world leaders in community service. In 2000, she received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in recognition for her efforts in unceasingly improving the lives of India’s poor and helping them to voice out their concerns through her organization. In 2010, she received the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academia and Management for her work with the National Advisory Council.
Aruna at Berkeley
Aruna Roy is a favorite speaker of Berkeley. She's been invited to speak several times in the school's seminar. She's done "Democracy vs Capitalism in India" and "Maharah Kaul Memorial Lecture" in the world-renowned university.
Currently, Aruna continues her fight against poverty and corruption. She is still a part of the NAC II and is working with the council to find more ways of improving the lives of her countrymen. Aruna’s example of what it means to become a real public servant is a powerful inspiration to those who believe that there are still those in the government who work for the good of the people.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan
- Right to Information Movement
- National Campaign for People’s Right to Information
Awards and Achievements
- 2000: Received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
- 2009: Received the Nani Palkhivala Award
- 2010: Received the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academia and Management