29 January 2004 Edition

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Mumbay gathering highlights social gulf

The fourth World Social Forum finished on Wednesday 21 February on the streets of Mumbay (formerly Bombay) India, where 30,000 activists from more than 100 nations marched for a more equal and fair world.

The selection of Mumbay as the venue for this fourth World Social Forum brought home the reality of a world where the poorest people live side by side with the wealthy but the two worlds never mix. India has shown to worldwide activists how traditions — many of which are upheld as an integral part of people's identity — can be the main obstacle to equality and fair treatment for everyone.

As an alternative to the World Economic Forum that was taking place in Davos, Switzerland, one of the world's wealthiest countries, Mumbay was a clear example of the huge contrasts that globalisation and the neo-liberal economy are bringing to our world. It is a city of extremes, from luxury hotels and exclusive housing complexes to shantytowns, crowded streets surrounded by pollution and people living in extreme poverty. But this forum has given an opportunity to socially marginalised groups, ranging from the Dalits (the untouchable caste) to sex workers, to participate and put across their message of struggle.

What started in 2001 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre as a forum against capitalist-driven globalisation has evolved into a movement that tries to overcome the limitations place on individuals and groups due to race, caste, religious fundamentalism, patriarchy and gender discrimination.

As one of the activists at the forum, Marwaan Macan-Markar, wrote: "The mix of major issues that shaped the discussions and debates here, in a forum attended by 50,000 to 80,000 people in a country where the poor make up majority of its 1 billion population, shows that the WSF is evolving into a new political creature."

However, at the same time, an undercurrent of discontent coursed through the debates and discussions that were part of the 1,200 events organised in India, raising difficult issues the forum will have to face as it looks to the fifth World Social Forum in 2005. The emergence of Mumbai Resistance 2004, a parallel movement for those who find the WSF too tame in opposing capitalist-led globalisation, highlights questions about where the forum goes now and what the mammoth meetings that have been going on for four years, can achieve.

"We are not engaged with the working class," asserted George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist who has authored such books as The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order. "The process leading up to our movement is a process that does not come from the bottom. We are unintelligible to each other." Monbiot, who spoke to a packed audience in a session on The Future of the WSF, argued that only a radical agenda would save this new protest movement from becoming irrelevant. "We have to turn the organisation upside down," he declared. "There has been a capture of this movement by the international intellectuals."

Many feel that the presence of grassroots activists at this latest Forum may help assuage the discontent of some. But the debate will remain open in 2005 in Porto Alegre — where the Forum returns next year.


During the WSF, men and women belonging to India's 'untouchable' Dalit caste made their presence amply felt during the many colourful protest marches, often accompanied by dancing, drumming and chanting, that they mounted at the WSF's venue to draw attention to their plight.

More than 260 million Dalits live in India. They are the most marginalised group, due to the prevalent traditional caste system in the country. Around 25,000 of them came together for the World Social Forum, as the caste issue was one of the main themes of discussion for the Forum panels.

The Indian Government, always sensitive to international criticism, in September 2001 moved to block caste from the agenda of the UN Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, arguing that it was already tackling a problem that had nothing to do with racism.

However, some of those attending the Forum, like young Khatu Devi, the issue is clear. "We have come here to tell others to what extent are we discriminated against," she said. "We want our rights and we think this forum is a place we can tell the world about our woes." Devi works in a mine and for the ten days or so that she had taken off she was not earning 50 rupees a day or cooking or taking care of her children or fetching the water. "But the price is not too high considering what we are getting in the bargain: bringing about a change in the mindset of the people," she said, optimistically.

Ghumpat Lal Mehra said such women face double discrimination. They are not only poor women but to add to their problems, they are Dalits: "On the one hand they are untouchables, but on the other, the thakurs (upper-caste people) can touch them for their pleasure."

According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, 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.

But the most prize-winning comment came from Mahesh Panpalia: "Tomorrow if a thakur offers me water from the same pitcher, I'd be so stunned I wouldn't know what to do." Ghumpat Lal Meher, a Dalit, added: "And God forbid if I take a sip, all hell will break."

They can't imagine the dawn of such a day, not in the near future at least. They tell of how in the past, the not so distant past, say a few months back, Dalits ventured to fill water from pond that had been off limits — and had to bear the brunt of that act. "Kerosene oil was poured over them and they were roasted alive."

So while they clamour for jobs, better prospects, elimination of bonded labour and a respectable share in the crop they grow on the land "which has been given to us by the government" but which their feudal lords refuse to accept, they feel that real liberation can come only "if we can bring about a change with regards to the untouchability issue".

Dowry: violence against women

Another issue discussed in the Forum and with clear connections to India is dowry, a demand made in cash/or kind in connection with marriage, before, after or anytime thereafter. The husbands' families claim for dowry in India has been linked with horrible acts of violence against women in the Asian country.

In India, families with female children need to marry them off as young as possible as they are a financial burden in terms of having to save for the dowry. Also, families are looking to increase the status of their own family through marriage. Women are commodities sold in marriage. In Mumbay/Bombay, educated men will come to look for dowries such as gold/diamonds. However, for women, dowry is a noose and not a safety net as in other cultures. Once married, women are seen as parasites and worthless. Many live with in laws and do not see their husbands. Demands for monies, if not met from the women's families, can bring torture and even murder to wives.

Homelessness: a global problem

Every year, thousands of homeless persons die in India due to lack of shelter. This issue was dealt with in a seminar organised by ActionAid India, an international development NGO, during the Forum.

Unjust globalisation and unchecked liberalisation has aggravated the plight of homeless persons and the magnitude of the problem. "The homeless are the most marginalised and vulnerable of the urban poor but have remained invisible to everyone, including planners and policymakers" said Miloon Kothari, UN special rapporteur on Adequate Housing.

"Homelessness is an issue that needs to be taken up at the global level. It is important that the state takes responsibility. Countries like India are bound by UN Conventions to address this issue. The issue should be pushed in the housing agenda."

Displaced by natural calamities like earthquakes, unjust trade practices and political catastrophes, millions of men, women and children are left with no choice but to sleep under the sky — on pavements, rickshaws, railway platforms, on water pipes and even on trees.

Harsh Mander, Country Director, ActionAid India (AAI), said: "There have been two ways the state machinery has related to the homeless, one to criminalise them and other to institutionalise them. Civil society has responded by demonising them, creating and propagating misconceptions and ostracising them."

He said the homeless have no address, therefore they are not entitled to any basic rights, including the right to franchise and the right to dignity of life. In addition, they face exploitation and abuse by those heading the administrative machinery.

Corporations: stealing the water

Despite the ongoing campaign against Coca-Cola's use of water in India, the US corporation has failed to clean up its act. The Coca-Cola bottling plant in Plachimada is stealing Kerala's groundwater for profit, leaving wells dry and people thirsty, creating diseases, making impossible agricultural activities and forcing the population to migrate.

Other corporate giants, like Vivendi and Suez, are taking over profitable water suppliers with the help of the World Bank and other international financial institutions. Driven by profit, prices rise and services deteriorate. Those who can't pay lose access to water. In this way, the human right to water is violated.

An alternative use of the water is possible. Diverse models — going beyond traditional state-run systems — emerging around the world demonstrate that democratic, participatory and rights-oriented public management can deliver water effectively and create social change.

One of the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations, is access to clean water and sanitation. To achieve this, the World Commission on Water estimates an extra $100 billion is needed, beyond the $80 billion already being spent. Debt and trade agreements severely inhibit the ability of poor countries to publicly deliver services. The difficulty is to fund the needed investment without relying upon private corporations or International Financial Institutions, which demand privatisation in return for their loans.

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