Aruna Roy - one of the most prominent and forceful voices within the NAC - has decided to opt out of Sonia's advisory council in its last crucial year. In NAC I, Roy played a critical role in framing and pushing through key legislations like the MNREGA and the RTI.
These are legislations that the Congress party hardsells to both voters and political competitors even though it has done little to strengthen these on the ground. Roy had strong words for the Prime Minister's Office and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, holding him responsible for stalling the payment of Minimum Wages to MNREGS workers.
NAC chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, she said, was "sympathetic" to her concerns. Roy also said that "social policy had now become less important to the Government of India than it was in UPA-I" which is why, "our voice from within the NAC is not as strong as before". So has the political significance of Sonia Gandhi-led NAC-II now diminished? Aruna Roy spoke to CNN-IBN's Rupashree Nanda.
Below is the full text of the interview:
CNN-IBN: You have decided to opt out of the National Advisory Council - you have played a very critical role in its first avatar, pushing through important legislations like the MNREGA and the RTI. In its second avatar you have been a strong and forceful voice. There are many people who wonder why are you opting out now when there is so much yet to be done?
Aruna Roy: The NAC is an advisory council. So let's say that the advice of the NAC has been given to the Government of India. The next year is a year for public action and implementation. I see my role outside now - in this critical one year for advice has been given, laws have been sent- it lies either with the parliament or with the government. Because it is the last year, my critical role is from outside.
CNN-IBN: But I don't understand this... because it is the last year, should you not have been inside the NAC pushing some of the important legislations which are still pending? Would you not have been more effective as a member within the NAC rather than as a person outside?
Aruna Roy: NAC has a limited mandate. It does not go beyond that mandate - which is to send papers and suggestions on policies and laws to the Government of India. That issue does not have a role within the NAC after that. My role is not defined by the NAC. My role is defined by campaigns, by movements, organizations, my own interests and, my own constituency. Now, my constituency feels that my role is outside and, they feel I should spend far more time working it out from the grassroots to the national level with them rather than being sidetracked by other issues which naturally come up before the NAC for consideration. Since I went into the NAC with the mandate of the campaign and organisations I work with, I have to accept their mandate when they say that I have to be now with them. So, I am out. And I see politically, it is a very sagacious decision because I think people see it as right, because this year is a year for asking for accountability (and asking for accountability not within the NAC) - as citizens who are aware and conscious and want the government to fulfill its promises.
CNN-IBN: Do you feel that in its second avatar the NAC did not enjoy the kind of clout it had earlier? That its own political space and relevance was somehow diminishing even though Sonia Gandhi led it? For instance on minimum wages- you have been pushing it for a long time but it did not find the kind of response that was expected from the Government particularly from the Prime Minister. And you mentioned that in your letter also?
Aruna Roy: Let's go back to the first NAC - the document that outlined the activities of the first NAC was the National Common Minimum Programme. It was a very clear and lucid commitment to the people of this country. The second NAC began with the President's speech to the joint houses of Parliament which was not as clear as the National Common Minimum Programme. Also, let's see how the politics - the bias of the political regime has shifted from say fairly divided attention in the first NAC to the 'growth agenda' and 'people's agenda' to an overwhelming priority to the 'growth agenda' in UPA II. Now, that politics defines the politics of the NAC - the NAC does not define the politics of the UPA. So it has been naturally influenced to that extent that social policy has now become less important to the Government of India than it was in UPA I. So, therefore our voice from within the NAC has not been as strong as before.
CNN-IBN: In your letter to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, you have also expressed disappointment with the Prime Minister because he did not support NAC's recommendation on minimum wages- you have singled out the Prime Minister for criticism in that letter?
Aruna Roy: I have said the 'PMO' but it includes the Prime Minister... because Mrs Gandhi had written two and half years ago from the NAC recommending that Minimum Wages be paid on MNREGA work and you know this is the smallest commitment. What is a minimum wage? In Rajasthan today it is Rs 147/- for working 8 hours in the sun. So, if you look at it, it is the smallest, minimum and final guarantee that a person will not die of starvation and will not be a destitute. So, to deny that guarantee to a worker on MNREGA is a violation in a sense of the Government's own commitment to its own laws. It is not a law that has been brought in from outside. So, the denial of that right, for us is a very strong negative in terms of the Government's commitment to the people. The High Court judgments were very clear - both of them (the Karnataka High Court and the Andhra Pradesh High Court) said that is was a clear violation of the law. That the Government chose not to negotiate - some parts of the Government (Rural Development Ministry) wanted to negotiate and see whether there could be a sensible, rational solution to the whole issue - but the PMO was the one that said they'll go ahead and appeal against the judgments of the Karnataka and Andhra High Court which itself, seems to me, rather weird... it is contradictory because it is appealing against its own law which has been passed been passed years ago which is poor people. Without the MNREGS having the Minimum Wages it cannot really fully deliver.
CNN-IBN: So you believe that it was the PM who stalled the entire process? Had it not been for him, had he listened to Congress President Sonia Gandhi the may be workers would have been paid minimum wages?
Aruna Roy: Let us say the PMO which includes the Prime Minister and his advisors. Unfortunately, I was with the IAS and I know that no politician works alone. So there must be his advisors and there must have been other people who influenced his decision. I think it is a very wrong decision in my opinion because it has given a very wrong message to all of us that the Government is now turning indifferent to the poor at its best and anti-poor at its worst.
CNN-IBN: Is there a divide/confusion between the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi right at the top and has that also impacted how the NAC functions? It seems that Congress President and NAC has have been marginalized in a way?
Aruna Roy: See I cannot comment on the internal arrangements between political parties and I don't have anything to do with the Congress... so I cannot say what happens within the Congress party. But what is apparent is that for social policy issues there is an ear to be found with Mrs. Gandhi. So whether it is within the NAC or outside all of us tend to go to her to express our angst and also ask for support. She has been sympathetic but how it works out in political relationship between them, I wouldn't know.