Aruna, Dreze terms for NAC return - Sonia brings back duo with promise of retaining voice on RTI, food right

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By RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
  • Published 6.06.10
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New Delhi, June 5: Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze, among the brains behind the rural job scheme and Right to Information Act, agreed to return to the National Advisory Council only after a lot of persuasion, including meetings with Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.

They had to be promised that the planned RTI amendments would not be enacted without a debate and that the national food security bill would be reviewed.

Officials said Sonia had insisted that National Advisory Council II (NAC-II) would not come into being unless Roy and Dreze were on board. Dreze and Roy, on their part, have made it clear their role as civil society campaigners for the “rightful” use of the RTI Act and the right to food would continue even after they became council members.

Roy and Dreze had been approached sometime after the advisory panel, dissolved in 2008, was revived last March with Sonia as its chairperson. But they conveyed they were unwilling to return, prompting Sonia and the Prime Minister to speak to them, government sources said.

Dreze, a visiting professor at the G.B. Pant Social Sciences Institute, Allahabad, and Roy, founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, had been the public faces of NAC-I.

The Belgian-born Dreze had conceptualised and drafted the first version of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which was watered down a bit and enacted into law. The Rajasthan-based Roy had worked out the advisory council’s blueprint on the right to information, which later became law after a little dilution.

Dreze quit the panel in early 2006 while Roy resigned three months after Sonia left the council following the office-of-profit controversy. “Once she was out, I figured out that a headless body was meaningless,” Roy said.

Sources said Sonia had her own reservations about the RTI amendments the government was keen on pushing through and also about the current form of the food security bill. However, she needed institutional backing and “informed” ideological ballast for her views lest they be misconstrued as “personal interventions”.

The NAC is the perfect mechanism to achieve the first objective while the presence of Roy and Dreze would lend ideological weight to Sonia’s positions.

“Let us see how much we can do,” Roy today said, adding she had consented to return because the advisory panel had a “process to create democratic space for larger consultations”. Dreze could not be reached.

The RTI amendments and the proposed food security law, Roy said, were beefed up with “rational arguments”. So the panel would have to come up with stronger and “more rational” counter-arguments. “We have to fight all the negative policies creeping into the system,” Roy said.

Among the demands made by Dreze and Roy, who were part of an over-arching campaign relating to the right to food, are:

■ Ban food export until malnutrition is contained;

■ Meet domestic needs by domestic production;

■ Universalise the public distribution system;

■ Ban future trading in food commodities; and

■ Place a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) seeds, GM food imports and use of GM food in government food schemes; and

■ Beneficiaries of any nutrition-related scheme must be given food and not money.

Roy and another NAC member, Harsh Mander, have spoken out repeatedly against the proposed RTI amendments that screen out “vexatious and frivolous” applications and exempt “file notings” and the “discussions and consultations” that precede decisions. They argue that it is impossible to define “vexatious and frivolous” clearly, and such an amendment can be misused officially.