'The whole world is here'

Caspar Henderson
22 January 2004

Friday 16 January, afternoon

Global India

After a chaotic 48 hours with very little sleep and a close encounter with an overturned rickshaw I’ve made it to the World Social Forum in Mumbai. The event is quite simply stunning. The whole world is here, with the great majority being Indian. And people from all over India – itself a world entire – are here, with dalits and tribals – the poorest of the poor – conspicuous in their brightly coloured clothes. Peasants who look hard as nails. Village girls in gorgeous saris. Agitated South Korean peace activists. Earnest northern Europeans with pale pointy faces. An unsmiling man in the queue behind me bears a badge that says, quite simply, LENIN. Not far away stands a space-age looking orange truck which turns out to be a mobile ATM (banking machine). Brazilians in surfing clothes laugh as they go by.

“THE NORTH OWES THE SOUTH HISTORICAL, SOCIAL AND ECOLOGICAL DEBT” reads a banner near the main entrance to the exhibition grounds and on the way to the main halls where the plenaries take place.

Getting registered is astonishingly easy. The level of organisation here is extremely impressive. An army of highly intelligent, polite, very well-educated and very young people are there to sort us out. If these people are the future of India then the future is bright.

After bumping into an Irish peace worker based in Iraq whom I met in London, I grab a quick lunch with an Italian-Indian couple and their beautiful three-year old son. They work with local communities in Varanasi on management of the cultural heritage. We have a strong coffee with a German communist who lives in Florence.

This morning’s Times of India carried a contrasting view to one held by many at the forum. Narendra Jadhav is a dalit educated in economics who worked at the IMF and now heads research at the Reserve Bank of India. He rejects what he sees as the alarmist prognosis that economic globalisation would further marginalise those living on the fringes. Rather, he thinks, the downtrodden – especially dalits – should make the most of the new opportunities, and “in another 50 years or so, a truly globalised India would sound the death knell for the caste system and bury 3,000 years of inequity.”

This afternoon sees the first plenary sessions of the WSF. The first, titled World Parliamentary Forum is actually a session with members of the European United Left Group of the European Parliament. Directly after that comes the formal Opening Plenary. I am off to investigate.


Friday 16 January, evening

A tale of two women

I met two women this afternoon who gave me a better idea of what this World Social Forum is about.

The first I met by chance when she asked me at a public session taking place mostly in Hindi what was going on. “Had Shireen Ebadi [the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner] spoken yet?” I have no idea, I said; I am deeply confused. She laughed.

Meenakshi Shedde is a Mumbai correspondent of The Times of India, a journal considered conservative by many here. I mentioned I’d read the interview in her paper this morning with Narendra Jadhav (a Dalit who is now research director of the Reserve Bank of India) in which he says globalisation is a good thing. We agreed it was a challenging piece, but at a level of generalisation that was not satisfactory.

“To understand what’s really going on here it helps to know something about the recent history of this city. There was a huge textile industry here until recently. But the mill owners, recognising that scarce land in the city had much higher value if redeveloped, ran their mills down. Many lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of mill workers lost their jobs. It’s been going on for twenty years. People are very angry. They’ve lost their jobs and live in unspeakably terrible conditions. The land is being redeveloped with glitzy new shopping centres and so on, shoved right up to and in the faces of the destitute. You should go and see it.”

I will. But at this point in Meenakshi’s story, our attention was diverted to the next speaker on stage. With about 50,000 others (a guess: it looks like the Glastonbury or Woodstock rock music festivals here, only it’s 30° centigrade, and people wear turbans), I was ‘meeting’ Arundhati Roy, writer and campaigner extraordinaire – who is about the same age and elevated social background as Shedde.

Here’s a sketch of the world according to Arundhati (it is not a quotation but a reasonably close summary):

In America and some parts of Europe, a new imperialism is being talked about as a good thing. They want a world of order at the cost of justice. They want a world of domination at the cost of our dignity. They ask us to debate. But debating imperialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape.

America has unparalleled military and economic hegemony, she says. Every country in the world is in the cross-hairs of its cruise missiles and IMF chequebook. Look at Iraq and Argentina if you want to see the poster children of this new imperialist globalisation.

In India, says Roy, Muslims have suffered terribly, both in Kashmir and Gujarat. Thousands have died. Millions of people, both Hindu and Muslim, are being displaced by imperialist globalisation. Poverty and terrorism have become the same thing. Imperialist globalisation relies on corrupt local elites to perpetrate this new genocide, and we have ours in India. The alternative is bombing, death, American occupation, and US soldiers pointing a gun in every child’s face. If you want to see the economic conditions for mass death, look at Iraq under US sanctions, which killed half a million children. Look at Chechnya, look at East Timor.

But, says Arundhati, no single country alone can stand up to imperialist globalisation. Not even Brazil with Lula.

So what do we do?, she asks. We have to go somewhere with this movement. We have to win something. So, we need to agree to concentrate on one thing.

Arundhati Roy has a suggestion. At the closing plenary, the World Social Forum and Mumbai Resistance should come together. They should pick two major corporations profiteering in Iraq. And as a collective around the world, with one focus on neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism, the movement should occupy all the offices of these two corporations around the world and close them down.

We are at war.

End of speech. Massive applause. I look around in the vast sea of heads for my new acquaintance Meenakshi Shedde. But I’ve lost her.

As I make my way through the crowd, I am handed a leaflet (from the March 8 Women’s Organisation) that says: “Shireen Ebadi Does Not Want ‘Another World’”. It accuses the Nobel laureate of being a person of the status quo, opposed to the emancipation of Iranian women from oppression.


Sunday 18 January, morning

What does it mean to challenge an empire?

Saturday morning the World Social Forum saw the launch of Challenging Empires, a new book featuring a wide range of views and analyses of the forum; what it is for and where it should go.

Two sets of panelists talked about the issues raised in the book. Among them were the following.

Boaventura Santos talked about the developing experience of direct and participatory democracy over four world social forums. The charter of principles agreed in Porto Alegre put participatory democracy at the centre. But, he said, it was important to be flexible and responsive to changing conditions. In India, for example, he had the impression that many felt that there was a role for representative democracy in the global social justice movement.

Santos, who is director of the Centre for Social Studies at Coimbra University in Portugal, said he thought NOMAD technology, which makes it possible to transcribe scores of discussions and put them online in a few hours, could be a tremendous benefit at future forums. He was also excited about the possibility of using electronic voting systems for voting at the forums. “I’m against all kinds of electronic democracy – except when it takes place in a context like this”.

Thomas Ponniah, who works with the Network Institute for Global Democratisation, quoted George Bush: “The liberation of Iraq is part of a global democratic revolution".

"Unless and until we on the left have a common programme”, said Ponniah “we’ll get more of this stuff.” The success of the forum, he said, depended on its success in mobilising a broad coalition of the left around a common agenda. At a minimum this should include: broadening and deepening democracy; a tax on financial speculation; and the elimination of tax havens.

An anarchist from Belgrade called Andre said he thought the movement should not include political leaders such as Lula (the president of Brazil). Governments and politicians had their spaces, he said. But the forum was ‘our’ space. He was concerned about the NGO-isation of the movement (that is, increasing domination by non-governmental organisations), and he thought there needed to be more awareness not only of the agenda at Mumbai Resistance, but also of People’s Global Action.

Michael Albert, a founder of Znet, said that there should be more effort on making local and regional social forums larger and better organised. There was enormous potential to expand and deepen these activities. “What if the World Social Forum was a product of these local forums, each of which sent elected delegates?” he asked. “Is there a fear of democracy arising from the base?”

Chico Whitaker, a Brazilian social activist who is one of the creators of the World Social Forum, said the forum had to remain an open space because if it became a movement it would die. “The forum is on a knife edge,” he said: “on one side is domination by an avant-garde; on the other is chaos. The WSF must be a process somewhere between these two events, one that overcomes differences.”

Challenging Empires includes four articles that originated on openDemocracy.net: ‘What is the point of Porto Alegre?’ with Ezequiel Adamovsky and Susan George; ‘Another World is Necessary’ by Nawal El Saadawi; ‘Democracy in its Most Radical Sense’ with Thomas Ponniah and William Fisher; and ‘Another Cameroon is Possible!’ by Victor Youmbi. The collection is edited by Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar and Peter Waterman, and published by the Viveka Foundation, New Delhi.

Sunday 18 January, afternoon

Dalit liberation

Everyone you talk to here who has been to previous World Social Forums says that one of the greatest differences is that here ‘the people’ really are present.

It’s said that around 80% of delegates in Porto Alegre had university degrees, while only about 20% came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Here in Mumbai the ratios are reversed.

Sunday 18 January, afternoon

Be here now

Voices Direct from the Forum are at Indymedia, India

Here you can listen to songs from the Forum

You can read discussions relating to a two-day symposium in four parts at the WSF 2004 on water management through very large-scale linking of rivers, “a curious process undertaken without detailed study or assessment”

There are anti-WSF articles like this one

And there are lots of photos


Among the most conspicuous are members of India’s vast dalit (out caste) and tribal groups (see here). There are 190-240 million in India, according to various estimates.

More than 30,000 dalits are here in Mumbai for the forum. Some of them have walked around almost the entire sub-continent, summoning support and gathering strength. They bring colour, music, drums, pipes, dance – but above all they come with a political message.

The forum looks like a highpoint in a process of political mobilisation. In fiery speeches, their leaders call on them to shrug off Hinduism, which they see as the instrument of their oppression, and embrace Buddhism. For this, the inspiration is Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a dalit who rose from nothing to become one of the architects of independence and a framer of India’s constitution.

At the forum, they are meeting the world for the first time. They are dancing with Japanese peace protestors, while Chinese labour rights activists and members of Senegalese NGOs look on.


Sunday 18 January, evening

Remembering the six-ton elephant lurking in the corner

Just before the European Social Forum in Florence, Italy in November 2002, Globolog argued that it was crucial to take account of China in debate and action for global human rights and civil society.

I don’t know how far, if at all, discussion of China (and by Chinese) featured at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2003. I am glad to say that it has featured here at a session titled The Impact of China’s Entry in the WTO and Human and Workers’ Rights.

Workers’ unrest is massive and widespread in China, said Lee Cheuk Yan, general-secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, and a Legislative Councillor. But there is no freedom of association for workers. The Communist Party leadership, he said, was worried about ‘the single spark [that] can set fire to a prairie’ (in Mao Tse-tung’s words). For this reason, it had well-developed methods for isolating emerging labour leaders, and imprisoning them for subversion for many years.

Robin Munro, director of research and communication at the China Labour Bulletin said that the Chinese government was playing a double game. It had reversed its historic opposition to human rights as a ‘bourgeois instrument of oppression’ and had ratified all the UN instruments on human rights, and was taking an active role in UN human rights work at the international level. But it was not honouring those rights, especially workers’ rights, at home.

The country’s entry into the WTO was a gamble by the Chinese government, said Munro. It was calculating that even greater integration in the global economy would enhance growth and so help to buy the government legitimacy with the Chinese people it otherwise lacked. The quid pro quo would be that the Chinese people should not agitate for greater civil and political rights.

The WTO will bring a rules-based system into China, one that – in theory, at least – requires greater transparency, accountability, monitoring and external enforcement. But, said Munro, the government was gambling that greater prosperity would allow it to continue its ‘deal’ with the people.

The Chinese government was enthusiastic about the WTO, but it had not signed up to the International Labour Organisation agreements that require signatories to honour basic rights such as freedom of association and the right to organise.

The gamble may not pay off, said Munro. Economic growth was bringing benefits to hundreds of millions, but vast numbers were also experiencing ever more difficulties as state enterprises contracted. Female migrant workers applying to factories in southern China were being told they were too old if they were 25 years old.

Han Dongfang – a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, director of the China Labour Bulletin and currently host of a radio show on worker’s rights broadcast from Hong Kong to the mainland – spoke brilliantly. I don’t have time to write about it now except to include a joke he made:

Han had been an ardent communist in adolescence, but lost his faith forever in the late 1980s. But today, he sometimes was accused of being the last communist because he used “dead language” about workers’ rights in his radio broadcasts to the mainland.

The event, which was assisted by the Lombardy chapter of the Italian trade union CISL, was attended by people from all continents.

Sitting quietly at the back of the room was a Chinese man with a face that spoke of great humanity and many years’ hard suffering.

A Hong Kong-based women’s labour organiser read out a beautiful poem by a young woman who had suffered burns over 75% of her body in a factory owned by a foreign company.

An Indian Communist in the audience expressed surprise. He said they were always told in his union that China was a workers’ paradise.

A source who has been to all the previous WSFs tells Globolog that the presence of Chinese people, especially people on their own from the mainland, is extraordinary and unprecedented. In her view, it could be significant for the future.


Monday 19 January, morning

Brazil, India...South Africa?

“Governments everywhere, not just the United States administration are the problem” runs a headline in TerraViva, a daily publication at the WSF. It’s a view that seems to be pretty widely shared here.

Others at the forum are thinking about the links or parallels to strategic initiatives, particularly from Brazil, at the government level, and how these may relate to the future of the forum.

One of the key strategic partnerships identified by the Brazilian government is the G3: India, South Africa and Brazil, the three “big democracies” across the global south.

The right-wing Indian government has invited Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva – head of the Brazilian Workers’ Party and President of Brazil – to be its chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations on 26 January. Both sides may be playing a long game.

As for the third partner, South Africa, it’s not hard to imagine that Thabo Mbeki’s administration would just love to have the World Social Forum to take place in an African country – his one – in 2006 (following its scheduled return to Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2005).

It’s widely felt that South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa – perhaps the only one – that has the necessary elements in place to enable it to host a World Social Forum successfully. It has a vibrant (though fractious) civil society, and the technical and organisational capacity to deal with such an ambitious event.

But are good relations with the host government necessarily a good thing for the forum? Many believe not, and this view is not confined to those who think government is always the problem.


Monday 19 January, morning

American doom inevitable... in 20 years

Walden Bello, the veteran Filipino political activist, has seen the future and it’s not American. US hegemony is teetering on the brink of destruction, in twenty years’ time:

“The crowds in Mumbai undoubtedly continue to regard the US as a mortal threat to global peace and justice, but they will also be cheered by the increasing difficulties of an arrogant empire that failed to see that decline is inevitable and that the challenge is not to resist the process but to manage it deftly.”

Meanwhile, Beena Sarwar tells one of our people in London that “the Pakistani delegation is just huuuuge – about 600-700 strong”. It may be the largest ever seen at a civil society event in India, she says.


Monday 19 January, afternoon

Sex, globalisation and good-time-wallahs

If a taxi driver in Mumbai knows about the World Social Forum and can speak English, he’ll tell you about two things. First, the case of alleged rape that made headlines in many of today’s papers. Sirajuddin Desai, a South African high court judge has been accused of raping a female delegate from his country.

Second, the big hit of the forum so far (at least in terms of local newspaper and TV coverage): a troupe of transexual Malaysian dancers and performers who put on a spectacular show here the other night.


Monday 19 January, evening

Empire of Dreams

“Death to America” is in the air one breathes at the World Social Forum. A different feeling, which may be more representative of India, can be found in the dreams everybody loves: Bollywood’s blockbusting films.

Yesterday, Globolog took a few hours off to explore downtown Mumbai. This included a trip to the Liberty Cinema for a screening of Kal Ho Na Ho. The film is set in New York, but it’s a full-on Indian all-dancing, all-singing affair. Great fun, and, among other things, a sustained love song to America. The audience loved it.

The Liberty Cinema, a fantastic art-deco creation which was restored not long ago, is set in the heart of a working-class district where Hindus and Muslims rub along side by side quite peacefully for most of the time. It’s within a stone’s throw of some of Mumbai’s most magnificent Victorian buildings, a reminder that the British Empire, for all its depredations, created this city. And the city thrived in part because the British promised religious and cultural freedom, and largely honoured that promise.


Monday 19 January, evening

Reality check

The hour-long taxi ride from Globolog’s hotel to the NESCO grounds where the forum is taking place goes near to an area where much of untreated shit of the 20 million people in this steaming tropical city makes its home.

If the taxi gets stuck in the traffic it can become almost unbearable to breathe – for the visitor, that is; thousands of people make their home here too.

But the other evening Globolog experienced another side of Mumbai when visiting the Mumbai Renaissance Hotel. This is where some prominent radical grassroots activists and labour organisers are staying.

A mirror on wheels checks the underside of the taxi for bombs as you enter through the steel gates to the lakeside grounds, attractively lit at night with lanterns in the bushes. The hotel rests on eleven lushly landscaped acres, with each of the 286 guestrooms featuring unrestricted panoramic views of the scenic natural surroundings. A standard room is US$300 per night (more than ten times what Globolog is paying) Presidential suites start at $1,100 per night. The beer is very cold.

On three floors of the giant air-conditioned indoor public spaces is music. Sweet sounds that give delight and hurt not. Three nearly identical pairs of musicians – in each case a smoochy guy in imitation Armani on an electric piano, and a leggy girl with very long hair and a very short skirt crooning into a microphone – relay all your old favourites, such as Jingle Bells, Hey Jude and I Just Called to Say I Love You.


Monday 19 January, evening

The UN at the World Social Forum

Many people involved in the World Social Forum are hostile to national government and conventional politics – but many also have a soft spot for the United Nations, or at least the idea of it in a revolutionary or reformed version.

So Globolog was glad to catch up with John D. Clark, who advises UN secretary-general Kofi Annan on relations with civil society at the forum. (The issues are explored in an openDemocracy.net column posted on 20 November 2003)

“Two things really strike me” said Clark, who is project director for the Panel of Eminent Persons on UN-Civil Society Relations and author of Worlds Apart: Civil Society and the Battle for Ethical Globalisation.

“First, the tremendous diversity and energy of all those present. But at the same time, how much this seems to be dissociated from the world outside the forum. The Indian media, for example, report it as if it were an unusual trade fair rather than a crucible of credible politics.”

“Second, the forum makes it abundantly clear that those with power – governments, corporations – are doing a very poor job indeed. But those who in my view articulate the case for change most effectively often have inadequate standing because they do not have a mandate.”

“There is no way that decisions that really matter in the real world are going to be made by anyone but those who already have power. This means that those calling for change need to think about compromise.”


Tuesday 20 January, morning

Stiglitz speaks

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Laureate in economics and former chief economist at the World Bank, sounded very like billionaire philanthropist George Soros when he spoke at the forum yesterday.

Stiglitz suggested that Special Drawing Rights should be launched as a global currency to fund public goods, a move that could end the virtual monopoly of the US dollar.

He also talked about the advantages of launching a separate Asian Monetary Fund, separate from the IMF. Stiglitz said that the falling dollar is a reflection of declining confidence in the US economy, whose debt is largely financed by Asian countries [Japan and China in particular].

New regional institutions, such as regional monetary funds, are not a new idea (see, for example, Grahame Thompson on openDemocracy.net); but support for them does seem to be gathering strength.


Wednesday 21 January, afternoon

The Message of the East

Yesterday was the last day of workshops and plenaries at the forum. Today many people rested, ahead of a big final party down at the Azad Maidan, a large open space in the middle of downtown Mumbai.

Today Globolog went to visit Mani Bhavan, the building where Mahatma Gandhi stayed during his visits to the city then known as Bombay. It was here that much of the planning was done for the campaigns that finally got the British to quit India.

There’s a photographic record of Gandhi’s life. And some of his writing is on display, including his correspondence with Leo Tolstoy and letters to Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt.

Soundbites posted on the walls include: “The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust” and “Democracy, disciplined and enlightened, is the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Also, among Gandhi’s statements to the world, The Message of the East :

“Let India be and remain the hope of all the races of the earth, whether in Asia, Africa or any part of the world...[The message of Asia] is not to be learnt through Western spectacles or by imitating the atom bomb. If you want to give a message to the West it must be a message of love and truth. In this age of democracy, in this age of awakening of the poorest of the poor, you must redeliver this message with the greatest emphasis. Today the West is...despairing of the implications of atom bombs, because atom bombs will mean the destruction not merely of the West but of the whole world.”

But India has taken a different path. As the Times of India (21 January) reports: the nation has just bought the Gorshkov, a $1.5bn aircraft carrier, from Russia. And this is just the warm-up. The next stage will be a major reinforcement of India’s nuclear delivery capability, with Russia likely to sell at least two nuclear submarines and several long-range, fast, nuclear-capable bombers to India.


Wednesday 21 January, evening

Obrigado Mumbai!

The final party on the huge open space of Azad Madan included a set of speeches from some leading figures in what's generally known as the Global Justice Movement.

Blanca Chancoso, an indigenous activist from Ecuador, said the people of the world were creating a new space for a people’s world. This was not a space for the elites, but a true United Nations for the people. Those present at the World Social Forum should go back to their own countries and communities to broaden and deepen the work begun here.

Reporting from activists workshops at the forum, spokesmen named two dates for worldwide global demonstrations.

Chris Nineham, shouting at the top of his lungs, said the United States-led war in Iraq was an imperialist war. He said organisers all over the world would convene huge demonstrations on 20 March 2004 (the anniversary of the US-led attack on Iraq), calling for an immediate end to occupation.

A spokesman for Via Campesina announced 17 April as a worldwide day against genetically-modified seeds, which the United Snakes was imposing in order to further undermine the poor.

A message from Madame Nguyen Binh, former deputy president of Vietnam, was read out. Quoting Ho Chi Minh, it concluded: “Unity, unity, and greater unity. Success, success and greater success.”

The last speaker was a veteran Pakistani activist. He quoted Abraham Lincoln, the US president who spoke (shortly before his assassination) of a near future that caused him to tremble for the future of his country. Lincoln feared that corporations and money power unfettered would lead to concentration of wealth in a few hands and utterly destroy the republic. “My friends,” the speaker said, “that world is upon us.”

But, he went on, we were at the dawn of a new world. A people’s world. And he referred to Mahatma Gandhi, our great liberator. “It is possible to abolish capitalism not through violence but by changing the mental attitudes of capitalists.”

India had been liberated not through armed struggle, but through Gandhi’s mobilisation of the “dumb millions”. “My friends, the ‘dumb millions’ are awakening today on a global scale. This is a historic moment. People are fighting for freedom in the most comprehensive sense. I have no doubt the attempt to dominate the world through military means will fail.”

Then came the fun bit. Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian rock star who was imprisoned under military rule and is now minister of culture in the Brazilian government, came up to play a solo set.

“I see a planetary celebration of the human species,” he said. “I see a seldom-found openness to novelty and contradiction. I think for a wee moment that human happiness is possible.”

Gilberto played and sang in English, French and Portuguese. It was marvellous. About 1,000 Brazilians went wild. And about another 10,000 of all nationalities had a good time.

Afterwards, an African ensemble and an Indian jazz-folk band played until late.

And so ended the fourth World Social Forum.


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