The following are my reports from the World Social Forum held in January 2007 in Mumbai published in The Hindu. I was part of the team of journalists from this paper assigned to cover this event.
Where a thousand flowers bloom
MUMBAI, JAN. 16 . If the idea of a democracy were to let a hundred flowers bloom, then the World Social Forum 2004 would surely be a bouquet of the most fragrant blossoms. As many as 80,000 delegates from 100 countries, each with his/her own vision of the world and how to make it better, are attending it.
People, in their thousands, have been streaming in since early this morning singing and dancing and announcing their presence with slogans in the air.
The wide roads of the NESCO exhibition grounds in Goregaon, a northern suburb of Mumbai, are choked with people of every nationality, wearing the most diverse dresses and speaking in the most wondrous languages.
As South Koreans opposing the war in Iraq mingle with Pakistani Sindhis singing `Dum-a-dum mast kalandar‘, as the drums from Tamil Nadu mingle with the cymbals of Tibet, they all seem to say, “another world is possible.”
The red flags of the communist parties flutter with the flag of free Tibet.
Two girls distribute pamphlets on the need for spirituality while youngsters in a hall nearby ready a stall highlighting the trauma of riots and earthquakes in Gujarat. At the food stalls, tribal women from Chhattisgarh and Orissa make tentative moves to try out Vietnamese food, while French-speaking Africans try to tackle plateful of `idlis’ and `sambar’.
If the World Social Forum is a platform for expressing protests, then there were protests against the Forum by groups of physically challenged people angry that not enough facilities had been provided for them.
It is this mingling of peoples, cultures, visions and agendas, the organisers hope, that would bring out new ideas to overcome the age-old problems of poverty, deprivation, oppression, war and violence.
A ‘satyagraha’ in Pakistan
MUMBAI, JAN. 17. A million peasants in Pakistan’s Punjab have refused to pay revenue or taxes for four years demanding rights to land in what is perhaps one of the biggest ongoing `satyagrahas’ in the subcontinent. In one instance, for four months from May to August last year, 19 villages in Ukara district were besieged by armed units of the Pakistani Rangers pressuring them to “lease” their land to the Army, which claims it needs this irrigated land for defence purposes.
The military, which is the single largest landlord in Pakistan Punjab, already controls 5,000 acres in this district. “They now want to gain possession of 12,000 acres of land being cultivated by the small and medium peasants and distribute this land to Generals,” says Luccas, a peasant leader from Ukara attending the World Social Forum 2004 here.
Luccas, whose family has 12 acres, says their forefathers were settled on this land by the British in 1903 to bring it under cultivation. Now the Army wants to dispossess them by taking their lands “on lease” and turn them into agricultural labour on their own lands. “We all voted for Musharraf in the referendum since he promised to give us full rights to our lands. But he betrayed us and today we have decided that we shall not part with our land and neither will we give any tax to the Government,” he says.
He goes on: “We have served the Government for a hundred years by paying revenue. Now our slogan is `Those who till the land, will eat its produce’.”
Luccas’ nephew, Suleman, died of bullet injuries when a Ranger fired on protesting peasants in August 2002. A brother was injured when police fired on peasant demonstrators last May.
“Today, the Army knows that if they want to take this land they will have to kill hundreds in each village. Women come out and dare the armed Rangers with `thapas’ (wooden bars used for washing clothes),” says, Farooq Tariq, leader of the Anjuman-e-Mazahreen Punjab (Peasants Collective). Interestingly in this district, the peasantry is about 40 percent Christian and 60 per cent Muslim, but this religious distinction has not divided them.
Luccas recounts how many of his villagers died for lack of medical facilities when their village was besieged by the Army, of how they feared for the worst. But that fear is gone now, he says, adding, “Our biggest victory was overcoming our fear of their stenguns,” paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi without realising it.
Scores of peasants have been kept in jail for over a year at times, they have been teargassed and 302 court cases have been slapped on them, they have been tempted with land in Cholistan, they have been preached to by the Mullahs not to fight generals of the Army, but they have not let these defeat them.
Today we are free, says Luccas and they cannot take away this freedom from us. Mr. Tariq, who is also general secretary of the Pakistan’s Labour Party, introduces one to a Pakistan very different from the regular media images of gun-toting fundamentalists and anti-India baiters.
This is a Pakistan where 36,000 peasant holdings have not paid revenue for over four years, where two million workers in about 200 trade unions are in an intense struggle for a minimum wage, where fisherfolk are raising their banner of protest, where women are organising against the draconian “hudood” laws and students are demanding a right to education.
Carnival of the unlettered and dispossessed
MUMBAI, JAN. 19. “Porto Allegre was more academic, but Mumbai is a sheer carnival of the unlettered and the dispossessed” says Silumko Nondwangu, general secretary of the South African Metalworkers Union comparing the World Social Forum currently on in Mumbai with the three previous editions in Porto Allegre in Brazil.
Carolina Gil from Brazil agrees that WSF Mumbai has seen an unprecedented participation from the poor and marginalised communities.
“That is the reason for so much sound and dance through the day”, she adds, referring to the incessant rounds of dancing and singing and drum beating that has characterised the WSF since its start on January 16.
In fact there was a troupe of drummers and dancers from Jharkhand who wound their way into a debate on WTO and disinvestment.
The speakers stopped for some time as the drums rolled on.
The drummers with paint and traditional costumes would, perhaps, not have understood the grave arguments that were being offered in English, Spanish and French, but they announced that they too were part of the WSF.
Many are the seminars and debates which have been drowned in the sound of drums, singing and slogan shouting. When this correspondent pointed it out to Ian C. Rivera, a Filipino working with agricultural workers, he replied that dance, slogans and music were the way the poor and illiterate people were participating in the WSF.
“It is important to realise that they may not have attended the big seminars and participated in the debates, but they have seen each other and gained strength from being witness to the struggles from all over the world”, he said.
Like Konyfrancis Lushai and Meshing Ching Marma from Bandarban district of Bangladesh these young girls from the Chittagong Hill Tracts have never visited Dhaka but now speak of meeting young women like them from South Africa who are struggling with HIV/AIDs and with sex workers in Mumbai. She understood how these women were organising movements.
The main road inside the WSF campus had become a permanent platform for every movement attending the WSF as hundreds of activists mingle with their posters, banners and music with each other in a sea of humanity.
Agricultural workers from Karnataka and tribals from Madhya Pradesh were huddled on the platform of Goregaon station singing songs and baking rotis.
They too were WSF participants, as their badges announced.
Bamba Niang from Senegal said that unlike in Porto Allegre there are many more people and a larger variety of concerns at WSF Mumbai.
He said George Bush and his war on Iraq has united everyone and the concerns for food security, job security, security from pollution and security from war were now woven in one single strand. That is the abiding contribution of WSF Mumbai, he said.
Unions confront a liberalising world
MUMBAI, JAN. 20. When the India organising committee of the World Social Forum wanted to invite Nelson Mandela to inaugurate the meet in Mumbai, it was, surprisingly rejected by the Africans due to vehement opposition from the southern African contingent.
Interacting with delegates at the WSF, it seems that an increasing number of people in South Africa see this anti-apartheid hero as the front-man of the IMF and the World Bank who has pushed privatisation and liberalisation of the economy using his stature to mute social protests.
A visibly upset former African National Congress activist, who wanted to remain anonymous, told The Hindu that economic disparities, especially among blacks, have widened since the ANC came to power in 1994. “A small black elite is aspiring to join the white capitalists,” she says, giving the example of Cyril Ramaphosa, a former miners’ leader who is now a multi-millionaire. Similarly, leading members of the South African Communist Party like Jeff Radebe, Alec Erwin and Geraldine Molekete, as Ministers of Public Enterprise, of Trade and Industry and of Public Services, respectively, are part and parcel of the Government’s privatisation policy, she says.
In 1996, President Mandela formally announced a policy of privatisation which led to transport, telecom and other “non-core” industries passing into private hands. Also, the ANC Government has been supportive of South African businesses buying out industries in other African countries, which has caused much tension among trade unionists there.
Resentment toward this has increasingly found expression through the new social movements of the urban poor, landless farm workers, women and youth which have emerged post-1994 and have no links with the ANC. The unions, represented by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), were muted in their protest due to their historical association with the ANC, but found their agendas and mass base slipping away. These critics accuse the Government of doing precious little to reduce the 40 per cent unemployment and say that in the past 10 years only three per cent of the land has been redistributed to landless blacks. They put the blame squarely on the ANC’s growing proximity to business interests, which are still primarily white.
It is only in the face of growing unrest among their core support base of black workers that the ANC Government has recently announced a 100 billion Rand plan to create jobs, build houses and develop health and education infrastructure in the face of new election this year, the activists say.
This package is a victory for the trade unions and their constant struggles against privatisation, assert members of the COSATU like Lulamile Sotaka and Nomthandazo Sikiti of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union and Silumko Nondwangu, of the Metalworkers’ Union. But others like Trevor Ngwane of the Anti Privatisation Front and Denis Brutus, anti-apartheid fighter, doubt whether the ANC will ever come out of the “clutches” of the big corporates and IMF-World Bank.
Similar rumblings are visible from some Brazilian delegates like Maria Elisa Meyer de Azevedo, Ticiana Alvares and Julia de Giovanni, who say that President Lula, of the Workers’ Party, is making too many compromises with the big banks and corporates. They say that he has pushed in pension reforms which even the military governments could not do for over 30 years.
They, like their South African counterparts, agree that their Governments are working under tremendous pressure from the U.S. and IMF-World Bank. Despite all their left wing protestations, these Governments have to compromise with domestic business interests to survive, these activists concede. The only way to counter this “shift to the right” is to keep up the pressure of popular movements, say these activists. But increasingly in countries such as South Africa and Brazil, this role is being taken away from the traditional trade unions by new social movements. So, are trade unions becoming obsolete even in countries which have ostensible left wing, labour friendly governments?
“It is difficult to remain committed to the demands of workers earning 500 Rand a month, when these trade union leaders are now earning 30,000 Rand a month as Members of Parliament and Ministers,” says a former anti-apartheid activist from South Africa who does not wish to be named.
Political activism grows younger
MUMBAI, JAN. 21. While delegates debated the takeover of the world by corporates, the takeover of the World Social Forum by big-pocket NGOs, the takeover of our imagination by cultural stereotypes, the takeover of protests by the youth went almost unnoticed.
Visible in all their energy and flamboyance were young people from all over the world at the WSF, contrary to the perception that social protests are middle age — middle class pursuits of the flower power generation.
A leading trade union leader in Indonesia, Dita Sari, joined the underground Communist Party in 1992 when still a student. Today, after serving four years in Suharto’s jails, she is a leading member of the 70,000-strong National Front for Indonesian Workers’ Struggles. She recounts how young people spearheaded the protests against Suharto’s military dictatorship. Over the years of the East Asian economic crisis, Indonesia’s workforce fell from 95.5 million to less than 55 million. Most of those who lost their jobs were young people and today they form the backbone of the popular struggles demanding jobs and democracy.
Khaisian Mung, was a high school student who was forced to leave Burma in 1988 after the military rulers crushed the democracy movement. Living in exile in Delhi, Mr. Mung today works for the democracy movement and is busy building networks with democracy activists from Tibet and Bhutan.
The examples are too many to list. Whether it is Julia di Giovanni of the Brazilian Sempraviva Organizagao Feminista, Lee Byung-Jin of the Korean Government Employees Union, Colombian Victor de Currea-Lugo working with the Palestinian Environmental NGO Network or Trevor Ngwame of the South African Anti-Privatisation Front, it would be difficult to find any movement or group at the WSF not dominated by people in their 20s and 30s. Even the alternate media, covering the event in large numbers, was dominated by youth.
The WSF organisers had set up a separate youth camp at Matunga, far from the main venue at Goregaon, to involve the youth. But almost all those who registered for the camp used it only for sleeping at night and spent all their time at the main WSF venue, attending seminars and participating in the singing and dancing.
Dorothy Keet of South Africa, who has greyed her hair defeating apartheid, said that this growing involvement of young people with social and political concerns was the one great hope for the future.
An “Apartheid Wall” in West Bank
MUMBAI, JAN. 24. Wajih El-Ayassa remembers that day in 1948 when the Zionists came with their guns and threw him and his family out of their village of Zakiria. The land, where they had lived for centuries, had overnight become the territory of the new State of Israel. Living since, in the refugee camp near Bethlehem, he is now a witness to his land becoming “an open air prison” as the Israeli Security Wall comes up.
“It’s actually an Apartheid Wall!” exclaims Salim, a South African and member of a Palestinian Solidarity Group. “In all our days under apartheid we have never seen brutality as is daily experienced by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” he says. “We never had fighter planes strafing Soweto nor had we tanks firing into unarmed people as we witness in the occupied territories of Palestine every other day,” he says.
The Palestinians and their supporters, who have formed an international solidarity alliance, were in Mumbai to participate in the just-concluded World Social Forum and “tell the world what is happening to us.”
The Israel Government is constructing a 700 km, eight-metre wall around the cities and settlements of the West Bank to regulate the movement of people. Much of the Wall has already been constructed and it will be completed by 2005.
“The city of Qalqilia has already been surrounded by this high wall with only one four-metre wide gate which is opened thrice a day for 30 minutes each time as the only access for the residents to move out or come inside. People have lost jobs since they can’t travel freely, they are losing their agricultural land which they can’t tend properly. They are living in what is an open air prison,” says Mr. Ayassa.
When Israel was formed in 1948 it took 78 per cent of the territory of Palestine. “Ever since, through its policy of Jewish settlements, it has taken away almost half of what was left to us. We are living in congested ghettos with 3.5 million people in the 3,000 square km of West Bank territory and 1.5 million stuffed into a 300 square km of Gaza strip,” says Mohsen Abu-Ramadan of the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network.
“With this “Apartheid Wall” they are not only making us prisoners in our own land and destroying all possibilities of an independent Palestinian State, but they are also separating us from our water sources”, says Mr. Ramadan.
Salim, their South African friend, says that having experienced apartheid in South Africa and now having lived in Palestine he is convinced that Israel is a racist State, with racist laws, which discriminate between people on the basis of religion. “With this `Apartheid Wall’ they are creating `Bantustans’,” he says, referring to the Apartheid South African Government’s policy of creating dependent “homelands” for the blacks.