Many sounds, one voice
The dust has finally settled in Mumbai, which went through quite a churning as thousands of feet stomped up and down in celebration, in protest, or just in the process of getting from one meeting to another. KALPANA SHARMA assesses the six-day mela.
THE happiest people in Mumbai between January 16 and 21 were the autorickshaw drivers in Goregaon. They made a killing as they ferried thousands of delegates, many of whom had come to the city, and to India, for the first time, from Goregaon station to the venue of the World Social Forum (WSF). Dollars became rupees, rupees became dollars, as a Rs. 12 ride became "only two dollars"!
The cloud of dust at the vast exhibition grounds in Goregaon, a northern suburb of Mumbai, has finally settled. But it went through quite a churning for six days as thousands of feet stomped up and down in celebration, in protest, or just in the process of getting from one meeting to another. In fact, the biggest challenge facing a participant at the massive WSF, which drew together around 75,000 delegates from 130 countries was to go from point A to point B in the shortest possible period of time. For whichever route you chose, you found you were swimming against the tide. Facing you was a virtual phalanx of humanity Dalits, tribals, workers, women, the Palestinians, the Tibetans, the Japanese, the transsexuals from Malaysia beating drums, dancing, holding banners, singing, shouting slogans. A group of children ran around with placards announcing the day's news the reactions of the older people at the conference to their demands. They called themselves the BBC the Bachhon Broadcasting Corporation!
Visual treat... the "romance" of the WSF lay in its diversity.
But now that the shouting is over, what did all of it add up to? Was it worth gathering so many people, generating so much talk? Has it led to anything new? Any resolves? Anything that will move the world social movement forward?
Chico Whitaker, the indefatigable Brazilian organiser of the WSF (who has been part of the process from its inception in 2001 when the WSF, held in the Brazilian city of Porto Allegre, came up as a counter to the World Economic Forum that is held in Davos, Switzerland, each year) insists that the effort is worth all the pain and trouble. "The WSF is not a movement. It is an incubator giving birth to new initiatives for change in the world." As a result, there is never a final document at the end of a WSF, nor a single objective but hundreds of goals set by the hundreds of groups who come under its umbrella.
That umbrella was certainly big enough to embrace a mind-boggling diversity. Where else would you find people like the Director-General of the International Labour Organisation, Juan Somavia, the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, or former World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz rubbing shoulders with tribals from Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland? Or workers from Japan and Korea who walked around wearing florescent green jackets and purple bandanas beating drums and shaking plastic bottles full of seeds? Or transsexuals from Malaysia who flamboyantly asserted their right to be heard. How often do you find a country's Minister of Culture singing John Lennon's famous song "Imagine" on stage, as did Brazil's Gilberto Gil on the concluding day of the forum?
This diversity was the romance, in a sense, of the WSF, the visual feast. But there was also difference, deep difference. The anti-globalisation meet did not have one view on how to react to the growing influence of neo-liberal globalisation around the world. While one group argued for a more humane type of globalisation, another held that the entire system had to be dismantled. The latter echoed the views at a parallel meeting held just across the road the Mumbai Resistance 2004 that brought together the more radical of the left groups. They argued that the WSF had fallen victim to the very trends it was opposing by accepting, indirectly, corporate funds to pay for the mega-event.
Also, while women's groups spoke of their right to control their bodies and for reproductive rights, people like rotund and jovial 60-year-old Palestinian farmer, Sharif Omar boasted that he already had 15 grandsons and daughters but hoped "before I die that there will be 30. Our wives are so active they give us more sons and daughters. This is a good answer for Sharon's war machine!"
The one issue on which there was little difference of opinion was the universality of the impact of war and the overwhelming desire in people in all five continents for peace. The Palestinians, just 40 of them, brought home the reality of living with war as they described the crisis they face as their country is literally "cut into pieces" by the security wall being built by the Israelis. Overnight, people find themselves cut off from their fields, from their loved ones, from access to schools and medical clinics.
Dr. Jihad Mashal, director-general of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, who lives in Ramallah, spoke of how even the best health care system becomes ineffectual when confronted with what the Palestinians call the "Apartheid Wall". Before 1993, Israel controlled all areas that are now a part of Palestine and, therefore, it controlled the health system. In 1993, the Palestinians took over the responsibility for health in their areas. Dr. Mashal says that health care improved dramatically. For instance, 86 per cent of all births took place in hospitals. Today, it is down to 46 per cent. Vaccination of children and antenatal care compared favourably with that in neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon.
Today the health system has collapsed because health teams cannot reach the places where they are needed and people cannot reach health services. The wall creates a virtual impermeable barrier. Since 2000, over 70 women have given birth at the checkpoints because they could not make it in time to the other side. Thirty-two babies have died as a result. Mashal suspects that the whole objective of the wall is to drive Palestinians away from their land and that it could result in a second exodus.
Averting war between India and Pakistan also dominated the discussions on the contentious Kashmir issue as Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris came together, presented contrasting viewpoints but also listened to each other. There were moving apologies by Sajjad Lone and Yasin Malik to the Kashmiri Pandits urging them to return. There were familiar recriminations by Indian human rights activists against the Indian security forces for their actions and there were honest admissions by Pakistanis about the role their country had played in Kashmir. But above all, there was a shared feeling that everyone had to move on and find a solution.
These were the type of issues discussed in the smaller meetings. In fact the real "action" at the WSF lay outside the vast halls where formal plenaries were held. These tended to be a line-up of celebrities making familiar statements. But in the smaller meeting, in tents where the speakers had to compete with the continuous din outside, useful exchanges took place. New linkages were made even as old ones were consolidated.
While the big names predictably caught the attention of the media, it were the unknown individuals who represented the true spirit of the WSF. Men like Bhanwar Meghwanshi from south Rajasthan who has run a one-man crusade to counter those spreading communal hatred in his region that borders Gujarat. He took on the Hindutvadis, who distributed a fortnightly magazine spewing hatred of other communities by publishing a monthly that countered the hate talk. With friends, he prepared a cassette that was given to local tea and paan shops to substitute the communal tapes that they played. He initiated cricket matches where the single criterion was that all teams had to be mixed Hindus, Muslims and people of all castes. He took out a cycle Yatra and collected signatures from over 700 people supporting steps to maintain communal peace. His motto he says is: "If I am a Hindu, and I don't have a Muslim friend, then I am an incomplete Hindu, and if I am a Muslim and don't have a Hindu friend, then I am an incomplete Muslim."
There were others like doctors from Belgium who have sued United States General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. troops in Iraq, in a Belgian court for war crimes on the basis of a Belgian law of universal competence. Although the Belgian Government has now changed the law, the doctors persist. Bert de Belder, one of the team that worked in Iraq, told The Hindu, "We have seen with our own eyes what happened in Iraq. Iraqi doctors and directors of Iraqi hospitals have joined us in our complaint. We are glad we have launched this case because it has got worldwide attention to the crimes committed in Iraq. We should not be intimidated by U.S. power." They are now planning to hold tribunal in Brussels on People versus Total War Incorporated from April 14 to 17, 2004.
There are probably 75,000 ways of looking at the WSF.
Each individual or group has gone away with his/its own assessment of the six-day mela. But what was achieved, even if much of the media missed it, was a demonstration of the extent to which people around the world abhor war, how much they long for peace and how many of them believe that economic progress is possible without violating people's rights.
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