If you’ve been following the news, you’re unlikely to have missed the passionate voice of Arvind Kejriwal, the 42-year-old Haryana-born activist, who is determined to tackle corruption and help change the way India is governed.
An IIT-trained mechanical engineer, Kejriwal joined the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) in 1995 but resigned after five years there. While he was an Additional Commissioner of Income Tax in Delhi, Kejriwal quietly started Parivartan, an organization that has never been officially registered. It is run by a few young volunteers who have helped thousands of citizens get everyday benefits—like a ration card or an electricity connection—without paying bribes to government officials. Parivartan [which means change] is also spearheading research into the right to information (RTI) and governance issues. Kejriwal, a 2006 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, was also instrumental in campaigning to have the Central RTI Act passed.
Kejriwal lives just outside of Delhi, with his wife Sunita of the IRS (she is a former colleague), and their two children with whom the busy activist sometimes wishes he could spend more time.
When Reader’s Digest interviewed Kejriwal in Delhi, it was early March, a whole month before Anna Hazare’s momentous fast, when the model Jan Lokpal Bill—aimed essentially at empowering citizens and fighting corruption—became the kind of news that eclipsed even the start of cricket’s IPL-4.
It was Kejriwal who, dejected with the long-delayed official Lokpal Bill, was instrumental in drafting the Jan Lokpal Bill, much of it deriving from his experience with Parivartan. Before going to press, we asked Kejriwal if he expected that kind of national, in fact global, response from Indians to something for which he’s been the little-known prime mover. “Not really,” he replied, “that’s why it was so encouraging.”
Reader’s Digest: Your big fight has been against corruption. Isn’t it ironic that people in the news because of corruption scandals include a Post Master General, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a Director-General of Police, an Income Tax Commissioner…?
Arvind Kejriwal: That’s because our system encourages corruption. And the vested interests have become so powerful and brazenly dishonest, they are challenging the rest of society, you and me, with ‘We will remain dishonest. If you can do anything about it, you do it.’ We need a system that encourages honesty and discourages corruption.
RD: Did this interest in fighting corruption start in your student days?
AK: No, I didn’t take part in anything other than academics then. So I got into IIT Kharagpur.
RD: And why didn’t you go abroad, as most IIT graduates do?
AK: Yes, some 80 to 90 percent of an IIT batch used to go abroad. I joined the Tatas. But just being an engineer wasn’t seen as sufficient, so the choice was between management studies, civil services and going abroad. I took the civil services. Although I had no experience, there was an urge to do something for society. I felt the services would give me an
RD: So how did you start?
AK: When I was waiting for the interview call, I resigned from the Tatas and did some travelling for almost six months. I went to see Mother Teresa in Kolkata. I stood in the queue and when my turn came, I said, ‘Mother, I want to work with you,’ and she
held my hands and said, ‘Go and work at Kalighat.’
RD: What did you do there?
AK: We used to go all across Kolkata. I saw a lot of poverty, sick people on footpaths, some even with gangrene. We used to bring such people to the Kalighat ashram and nurse them. If they were dying, Mother Teresa’s message was to let them die with dignity. So there should be some volunteers with them.
RD: Where else did you travel then?
AK: My stint with Mother Teresa for about two months was like a complete service. Before that I went into the interiors of Bodoland and other areas. I joined the Ramakrishna Mission for a while and then Nehru Yuva Kendra and travelled all across Haryana. When I got the interview call, I returned home. I liked this phase of my life, because I interacted with various people before I joined the IRS.
RD: Did your dad suggest this travel?
AK: No, they were very concerned because I was suddenly out of circulation, and there was no mobile phone in those days. My parents weren’t happy because they just didn’t know what had happened to this guy who’d until then been ‘all right’.
RD: Tell us about your IRS days.
AK: It was a sudden change after all the travel, and so seemed a little difficult. I was always thinking ‘I am not going to be happy in this job’ and after joining the training—it was 1995—I said so to some of the professors. I told them ‘I think I am a misfit’ and asked if I should continue in the job or not. They suggested I continue and not take any hasty decision.
RD: You felt already that this was a corrupt organization?
AK: No, I think I enjoyed every bit of it, working in the IRS. I was never victimized, and the Income Tax Department where I worked actually offers great opportunity.
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