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Saying no to globalisation at the Asian Social Forum?

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Dalits, adivasis, displaced people, the disabled, the landless, the evicted, were present as the Asian Social Forum opened in Hyderabad on January 3.

Why start the New Year jumping on anything moving to get to Hyderabad of all places? Yet January 1, 2003 saw activists, political academics and NGOs rushing to the city. The reason? The Asian Social Forum.

The ASF, part of the World Social Forum, says no to globalisation. Perhaps the reason why all these people were rushing to Hyderabad rather than bringing in the New Year is because there appeared to be little to celebrate. And everyone was delighted to be part of worldwide gathering saying we haven't given up. We are determined to make the world a better place. There were screams of ‘Say no to globalisation, capitalism and exploitation'. There were demands for justice and equality.

Slogans we've all heard and outgrown. Yet there was a new element to the cries –one of desperation as more and more people watch with disgust and helplessness the emergence of a unipolar world. Even those who were delighted to usher in Coke, McDonalds and Nike have become aware that their sons will be singled out of green card queues to take off their shoes. Because even our super-intelligent IT nerds look like terrorists to many Americans.

More ordinary people than ever before, because of television and instant reporting, are aware of the number of innocent Iraqi children who die every month because Bush and Blair decree that their brand of the murder of innocents is necessary to free the world of Saddam Hussein.

So there are people desperate to, at least, voice their dissent. To protest against the gross injustice that threatens to undo us. To say WE are not THEM. Thinking Americans are part of the protestors. There are a growing number of Americans who asked in bewilderment “Why do they hate us?” And as they search for the answer, Noam Chomsky and his tribe become people with answers rather than weird pinkos. There were many Americans at the ASF embarrassed and ashamed of the role of the Bush administration in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. They echoed what many Americans back home are saying. And it was good that the world heard them.

There were powerful voices on the stage every day. At the opening ceremony, Medha Patkar, Prabhat Patnaik and several world voices were heard. The speakers were people who dazzled their audiences with passionate pleas for a better world. There was hope emerging from despair as an Argentinian mother spoke of her missing son. “Our children disappeared, they disappeared fighting for justice, for a better world. We will keep their ideals alive. Keep the torch burning brightly. They did not die in vain. We can and we will create a better world.”

The programme includes people from around the country who have fought the good fight. Who raise the banner for the poor, the excluded, the victims of exploitation who come in droves. There are dalits, adivasis, displaced people, the disabled, the landless, the evicted. Many of them face threats even more serious than before because of the impact of globalisation.

As we enter 2003, dalits in Pudukottai will have their centuries-old common grazing grounds handed over to large businesses and MNCs. In 1947 we decreed, in spirit and in words enshrined in our Constitution, that we would fight feudalism and give a better deal to our dalits and adivasis, to our poor in general. We enacted laws to curb landlordism and give bonded labourers the land they had toiled over. Fifty years later, the Government of India is going back on the spirit of the Constitution as we throw out the Land Ceiling Act to allow in multinationals and big business. The poor have to tighten the belts over their already shrivelled stomachs to make way for the prosperity and progress of the country in general.

Activists who have fought land rights battles inspired by the Constitution are a weary, dispirited lot. This is why they have flocked to Hyderabad. To lift their drooping spirits, pick themselves up and keep going. It's harder now, in the face of the global onslaught.

The ASF features a special panel called Peoples' Voices -- giving a space to victims of globalisation, conflict and exploitation, people whom globalisation has directly affected. They are representatives of their communities. A traumatised young girl from Gujarat, a Tamil Nadu dalit whose land is in danger of being confiscated, a Japanese girl from the discriminated against Buraku community, a displaced adivasi from Narmada, a woman from Afghanistan, an orphaned Kashmiri 14-year-old and a Palestinian farmer among many others. The Panel will continue from January 3 to 6 and the world will be invited to listen, comment and interact.

Hyderabad was chosen as the venue specifically because it is seen as the hub of globalisation in India. It's an in-your-face challenge to Chandrababu Naidu and his ilk. The opening speaker, a gracious Hyderabadi, said, “The World Bank and IMF have chosen Andhra Pradesh as their lab. We are now famous as an IT centre and the country is proud of this. But Hyderabad was famous for its culture, its hospitality, and as an ancient centre of learning. We were the heartbeat of the country's anti-feudal struggles, the struggles of the peasantry against powerful feudal landlords. History books talk about the Telengana struggles. We stand here to assert that the movement is not dead. We will recreate a better world. And we are proud to stand here in Hyderabad and declare this.”

At the end of the first day, long into the night, groups huddled around. There was a coming alive of weary spirits. If Hyderabad achieves nothing else, this rekindling of spirits alone would have made the ASF worth all the effort.

January 4 saw another interesting range of groups and individuals. While intellectuals and academics flocked to hear the most famous speakers, dalit youth danced their hearts out. Several groups lent life and colour to the day. The Rajasthani dalits ushered in the Peoples' Voices panel, drumming and dancing their way to the stage in bright, festive reds.

On the downside, the display and information regarding venues, timings and topics was chaotic. People who would have given an arm and a leg to hear P Sainath, Medha Patkar, Walden Bello and others never got the information when they needed it.

A massive effort on health issues was visible. The Health For All people organised different events covering various health issues and there was interest especially after the Bangladesh Assembly.

Environmental groups had their share of eminent speakers, but there was more focus on peace efforts, anti-war demonstrations and anti-globalisation movements.

One of the highlights of the day was a Women in Black silent meeting which was joined by a large group of Tamil activists who meet every Tuesday dressed in black. Men and women dressed in black stood in a large circle carrying placards protesting the American bombing and blockading of Iraq. A Japanese peace activist spoke briefly. As the day drew to a close, the Women in Black lit candles that gave out a warm, comforting glow as night descended. It was a good way to end an exhausting day.

InfoChange News & Features, January 2003