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Aruna Roy: Pioneering Social Activism and Grassroots Empowerment


Aruna Roy, synonymous with social activism, grassroots empowerment, and an unyielding commitment to justice, was born in 1946 in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. Her transformative journey from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) to becoming a torchbearer for people’s rights stands as a testament to her dedication to effecting positive change in Indian society.

Early Life and Education

Aruna Roy’s upbringing in a family of Tamil Brahmins was anything but conventional. Rejecting orthodox beliefs about caste and religion, her family embodied a commitment to egalitarian principles. With a lineage rich in public service, she was surrounded by the influence of a maternal grandmother engaged in volunteer social work and a grandfather contributing to social work and education as an engineer.

Her diverse education included training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music, attendance at a convent school, and learning French. After a year at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, she completed her education at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and pursued her post-graduation at the University of Delhi.

Civil Services (1968–1974)

In 1967, Aruna Roy, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy, entered the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exams, driven by a feminist choice to work for social justice within a constitutional framework. As a civil servant posted in various roles in Tamil Nadu and Delhi, her initial idealism faced challenges within the entrenched colonial values and hierarchical structures of the bureaucracy. Corruption further disillusioned her, leading to her decision to leave the civil services.

Barefoot College (1974–1983)

In 1974, Aruna Roy joined the Barefoot College with her husband, Sanjit Roy, for the social and economic development of Tilonia, a rural village in Rajasthan. This experience exposed her to the challenges faced by rural communities, transforming her lifestyle and perspective. The Barefoot College, under her husband’s guidance, became renowned for introducing technologies like solar power to rural villages.

Interceding Years (1983–1990)

Between 1983 and 1987, Aruna Roy worked with tribal and women’s groups in Rajasthan and neighbouring states, promoting collective action among rural communities. Initiatives like the Mahila Mela (Women’s Festival) in 1985 addressed issues faced by poor rural women, shifting attitudes towards violence against women.

In 1987, with like-minded associates, she moved to Devdungri, Rajasthan, aiming to establish a new organisation for grassroots empowerment, marking a renewed commitment to collective action.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (1990–2004)

In 1990, Aruna Roy co-founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), focusing on mobilising collective action for the rights of the rural poor. Operating as a non-bureaucratic, non-hierarchical organisation, the MKSS initiated “People’s Hearings” to hold the government accountable. The fight for fair wages evolved into a broader struggle for India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act, enacted in 2005.

Later Career (2004–Present)

Aruna Roy continued her activism, advocating for the Right to Work (NREGA), the Right to Food, non-contributory pensions for unorganised sector workers, and the Whistleblower Protection Law and Grievance Redress Act. She served on the National Advisory Council (NAC) and became the 2016 Professor of Practice in Global Governance at McGill University. In 2018, she co-authored “The RTI Story: Power to the People,” chronicling the history of the Right to Information movement.

Honours and Awards

Aruna Roy’s significant contributions to social activism earned her numerous awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2000 and the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academia, and Management in 2010. Time magazine recognised her as one of the hundred most influential people in the world in 2011.

Aruna Roy’s journey from civil servant to prominent social activist showcases her steadfast commitment to social justice, grassroots empowerment, and the rights of the marginalised. Her work has left an enduring impact on India’s social activism landscape, inspiring others to champion the cause of justice and equality.



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