The Mumbai World Social Forum Will be a Landmark in the Fight for Global Justice

09 January 2004
Praful Bidwai

The Mumbai World Social Forum Will be a Landmark in the Fight for Global Justice
Another world is possible!
Praful Bidwai
The Hindustan Times (New Delhi), 9 January 2004

Economic globalisation, they never tire of telling us, is here to stay; there is no alternative to the rule of giant corporations, to free (but unfair) trade, to grotesque economic disparities, to the naked reign of property. Nor can there be an escape from the pursuit of balance-of-power politics, military domination, hegemony and Empire. We must learn to play the power game, or perish. Only the fittest can survive in the Social Darwinist world.

Who are these preachers? A minuscule elite consisting of CEOs who earn millions by Enron-ing their companies, policy-makers who measure success by impoverishing their people, and politicians without a social base who parrot market-fundamentalist mantras. They have repeated these sermons mindlessly for years-undeterred by reality.

That reality is a virtual tripling of North-South income disparities over the past half-century, the erosion of genuinely participatory democracy and closing of political spaces in numerous countries, the disempowerment of vast numbers of people in the underdeveloped Global South, and the crystallisation of "one-third-two-thirds" societies in the North, where only a third of the population prospers, another third has no future, and the rest uncertainly hovers in between.

The reality encompasses Enron, WorldCom, Vivendi, Global Crossing, QWest, Invensys and numerous other instances of the meltdown of "shareholder-value-driven" corporate capitalism, which has wiped a wholly unprecedented $8.5 trillion off US stocks-an amount exceeding the income of entire world barring the US. And now, there's Parmalat too!

Today's global reality is also about how the powerful gratuitously undermine multilateral institutions and promote militarisation in search of world domination through doctrines of "pre-emption" and how they practise international brigandage and launch unjust wars. These processes have had their ugly blowback in reinforcing religion-driven terrorism and causing greater insecurity for all.

None of these ghastly truths may have intruded into the Panglosses' neoliberal-Social Darwinist anthem. But the global public knows better. That's why millions of citizens have joined the fight against capitalist globalisation and imperialism in creative ways. If the movement against the Iraq war brought into being the world's "second superpower", the global movement for economic justice has proved no less challenging to corporate capital.

Both these are uniquely represented together in the World Social Forum under the slogan: "Another World is Possible". The Forum, to be held in Mumbai on January 16-21, will be a gigantic event, only slightly smaller in magnitude than a Kumbh Mela, with nearly 80,000 participants from more than 150 countries, including citizens and scholars, environmentalists and trade unionists, feminists and creative jurors, Adivasi and Dalit rights campaigners, musicians and theatre-people, film-makers and painters.

Among the participants will be anonymous activists as well as distinguished figures from different walks of life such as this year's Nobel peace prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, the new face of liberated Iranian womanhood; last year's economics Nobel winner and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz; the dynamic new Palestinian politician Mustafa Berghouti; the British Labour Left leader Jeremy Corbyn; original creative writers like Arundhati Roy; great social activists like Medha Patkar; and our own sagacious former president, K.R. Narayanan.

What is the World Social Forum all about? It was conceived as an international platform against the kind of neo-liberal policies and capitalist-led globalisation promoted by the World Bank and the IMF. It contraposed itself to the Davos-based World Economic Forum, set up by the world's 1,000 biggest and most influential corporations. The first WSF, held in January 2001, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was timed to coincide with the WEF.

Since then, the WSF has acquired an independent identity and a life of its own. Participation in it has increased five-fold from the original level. Last January, one lakh people attended the WSF in Porto Alegre. The WSF has developed into a festival of ideas and a moving feast of debates, conferences, seminars, workshops, music, theatre and film as well as alliance-building and solidarity. 2004 is the first time the WSF is being held outside Brazil. India is lucky and should be proud to host it.

What explains the WSF's tremendous attraction, especially for young people both in the North and the South? For decades, corporations and hegemonic states have ruled the world, making it a worse place to live in. In the name of the "free market" and liberalisation, terrible policies have been thrust upon the world's peoples, robbing them of their rights, resources and democratic instruments.

Democracy has been hollowed out in scores of countries as people have lost control over the economic processes that rule them. Whole nations have been bankrupted through ugly "Structural Adjustment" programmes and rampant privatisation of precious public assets. The World Trade Organisation has made matters worse by thrusting unequal trade and patent regimes upon the globe.

At the same time, hegemonic powers like the United States have become more unilateralist, arrogant and brazen about building a global Empire by purely military means-in defiance of world public opinion and the entire gamut of multilateral institutions in and outside the United Nations. This new imperialism has produced misery and new forms of instability and dislocation-and made the world more insecure. This insecurity further feeds inequality, injustice and further war-mongering.

The decision to hold the Forum first in Brazil was significant. Brazil has been a victim of neo-liberal policies. But different sectors of Brazilian society have resisted these policies, in villages, bustees, factories, political parties and schools. Brazilian grassroots organisations have greatly inspired the WSF's development. Porto Alegre itself is in a province ruled by a government led by the Workers' Party, whose working class leader Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva is now Brazil's President.

The WSF is not an organisation but "an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas . free exchange of experiences and inter-linking for effective action". Its participants are civil society movements "opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and imperialism . [and] committed to building a society centred on the human person". These movements are working to demonstrate that the path to sustainable development and justice lies in people-centred and self-reliant progress, not in bogus "free market" doctrines.

The Mumbai WSF will primarily focus on concerns special to our part of the world, but of global relevance: Imperialist Globalisation, Patriarchy, Militarism, Peace, Communalism, Casteism and Racism. The six-day event will have 2 huge plenaries, 5 panel discussions and round-tables, 4 public meetings and 4 conferences (each attended by 15-20,000 people). Most important, it will have 200 spaces for seminars and workshops. The emphasis will be on participation and dialogue, with question-and-answer sessions, rather than declamatory speeches.

The organisers have cleared conferences, workshops, etc. on an astounding 1,600 subjects. They are trying to compress them into 1,200 sessions! The speakers will reflect diversity, with an emphasis on representation of women and the underprivileged. Importantly, the agenda will feature cultural events such as theatre, music, living displays of crafts, folk dances, poetry recitations, and films. Witnesses will present 6 to 8 testimonials every day.

Even the WSF's critics cannot fail to be impressed by the titanic energies it has unleashed. These have inspired artists to do something nobody else has done before: daringly paint a whole suburban train in Mumbai.

WSF is a powerful, massive, people-centred answer to conservative cynics who peddle Social Darwinist dogma. It is a celebration of the people-their humanity, their rights, their aspirations to justice and their creativity. Join the celebration!

Copyright 2004 The Hindustan Times