Wednesday, January 28, 2004

On the move

The World Social Forum brings together the poorest people on the planet. Randeep Ramesh in Mumbai hears new calls for the environment and social justice.

The ebullient crowd of 100,000 that filled the streets of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, last week, represented not just a triumph of people power but of ideas. Led by hundreds of red-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks, the global gathering of the radical left at the World Social Forum (WSF) paralysed traffic in India's financial centre.

But, in the words of organiser Gautam Mody, the idea was not to stop capitalism but to "contaminate" it. "The WSF is about contamination," he says. "People can come here and contaminate each other so that we can find new ways to work with each other."

Although much of the fervour generated was directed at old foes, such as Coca Cola and the International Monetary Fund, there were new targets also. Oxfam launched its campaign for a global treaty against the proliferation of small arms, which the charity describes as "the real weapons of mass destruction".

There were impassioned cries for justice in Kashmir from Yasin Malik, a former militant who has renounced violence to campaign for the state's independence. There were pleas from farmers in South America demanding land rights, and angry shouts from Bhutanese refugees in Nepal who want to return home.

The forum took place among the dust of a large empty factory complex in a northern suburb of Mumbai, better known for its auto showrooms and shopping malls than its concern for the poor. Under the slogan "Another world is possible", tens of thousands of people gathered from more than 100 countries.

The profusion of agendas made it difficult to see how an effective, coherent coalition could be formed. For example, not everybody cheered a retreat from the global market. Nobel prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, who used to work for the World Bank, one of the bogeymen of the WSF, criticised the way enforced trade liberalisation meant that poorer countries benefited less than richer countries, and he was well received.

But the common thread running through every argument was of the struggle of the powerless against the powerful. It ties together all the disparate causes.

The shape of the anti-globalisation movement has been altered forever by holding the WSF away from its "home", Brazil. Held annually from 2001 to 2003 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the WSF organisers decided that a move abroad was needed to build wider support, acknowledging that it had long been dominated by Europeans and Latin Americans. At the last meeting, only 200 people from Asia attended. This year, more than half were from Asia, which contains nearly half of the world's poor.

India was chosen not only for the large number of its activist groups and its historic stance as an advocate of poor nations but because the country has been liberalising its economy for the past decade and has seen the arrival of a growing number of multinational firms.

Despite its image as a software superpower, most Indians work in agriculture. Devinder Sharma, who runs the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, in Delhi, campaigns against GM foods, pointing out the diminishing returns of using crops that have no long-term resistance to insect attack.

His argument is not just with the corporate takeover of farming, but with the pitiful response of governments to globalisation. "Every fourth farmer in the world is from South Asia," he says. "Productivity increases will mean more people leaving the land for the cities. Which is fine if you have created jobs for them, but the government has not. By liberalising our accounts, we now import cotton, maize, edible oil, even pulses. And we wonder why farmers here in India are beginning to commit suicide."

The anti-globalisation movement, which coalesced around the protests at the World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle in November 1999, started primarily as an anti-big-business movement, but the WSF has ensured that it revolves around anti-war and issues of discrimination.

In particular, the issue of caste was a central theme of the six-day event in Mumbai. "We are suffering an injustice that means people are killed because of who they are," says Dr Umarkant, a researcher with the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies.

"We are the untouchables, the unapproachables, the unseeables of Indian society. If a Brahmin were even to look at us we will defile him. Yet we were promised 55 years ago that things would change and little has changed. So it is time to internationalise the cause."

Nearly 140 million Indians belong to the lowest caste known as the Dalits, or "the oppressed". The New York-based Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 100,000 atrocities, including murder and rape, are committed each year against Dalits, who, in the view of Hindu traditionalists, should not be allowed even to sit on the same bus seats as higher-caste Indians.

Many of the activists in Mumbai were unaware that they were surrounded by millions who were born into a system of "invisible apartheid" and were furious once they learned about Hinduism's centuries-old social hierarchy. Links were made between groups discriminated against in Japan, Nigeria and Ecuador.

India's government is extremely sensitive to criticism on the issue of caste. Three years ago, it moved to delete the word from the agenda of the UN conference on discrimination in South Africa. But, says Umarkant, "We are going to start raising this issue at every opportunity to embarrass the Indian government into action."

The face that dominated the forum was that of US president George Bush. It could be seen among every march and on every float that passed. The figure everybody loved to hate. "We are pro peace and against war - the opposite of what Bush wants," says one of the delegates, Hassan from Tunisia. The WSF organisers aim to capitalise on the anti-war sentiments and plan a series of rallies around the world later this year.

As the WSF came to a close, the World Economic Forum kicked off in Davos, Switzerland, bringing together the richest and most powerful people on the planet. Although both profess to have the same aim - bringing about a more prosperous, secure world - they are poles apart in how to achieve it.

While the meeting in the Alps might at best claim to generate the growth and resources needed to fight poverty, in Mumbai the call was for more economic and social justice first. If the two are to be reconciled it will mean that both sides will have to listen to and learn from each other.

Source: The Guardian, January 28, 2004

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