If you are interested in the question of Palestine/Israel, you might want to hear Mustafa Berghouti, one of the most dynamic of Palestinian politicians and activists, who is remarkably unburdened by the mixed legacy of the PLO leadership. Or who knows, you might want to listen to the words of wisdom of our former President K R Narayanan, and maybe former prime minister V P Singh. Would you rather rub shoulders with Samir Amin, the famous economist from Egypt, who had been writing about the global economic for decades? Or would you care to hear Asma Jehangir, the human rights defender from Pakistan? Not to be missed are some of the world's greatest social activists like Medha Patkar. As for writers like Arundhati Roy, thousands would like to interact with them.
You can meet all these people in Mumbai beginning this Friday, at the World Social Forum. This will be a gigantic event, only slightly smaller in magnitude than the Kumbh Mela, although it is much larger than anything ever organised in an Indian metropolis. To be held in suburban Goregaon's NESCO grounds between January 16 and 21, the WSF will host nearly 80,000 participants from more than 150 countries of the world, including citizens and scholars, campaigners for a just world order and peaceniks, feminists and creative jurors, Adivasi activists and Dalit rights campaigners, environmental activists and trade unionists, child rights campaigners and defenders of old people's dignity, musicians and theatre-people, conscientious journalists and sexual-freedom defenders, film-makers and painters, sportspeople and humorists, academics and grassroots opponents of ecologically disastrous projects.
What is the WSF all about?
The World Social Forum was conceived as an international forum against neo-liberal policies and capitalist-led globalisation. It has grown around the slogan: 'Another World Is Possible.' It has become the citizen's answer to the World Economic Forum, based in Davos, Switzerland. The WEF was set up by the world's 1,000 biggest and most influential corporations, whose top executives have been meeting one another every year since 1971. The first WSF was held in January 2001, in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. It was timed to coincide with the WEF's Davos meeting and was thus also seen as a 'counterweight' to the Right-wing policies and 'free market' options proposed by it.
Since then, the World Social Forum has acquired a life and an independent identity of its own. Participation in it has increased five-fold from the original 20,000 people. Last January, 100,000 people from 150 countries attended the WSF in Porto Alegre -- a veritable festival of ideas, a moving feast of debates, conferences, seminars, workshops, music, theatre, film and creative activism in the arts. 2004 is the first time the WSF is being held outside Brazil. India is lucky and should be proud to host it. Over 52,000 participants have already registered in Mumbai.
What explains WSF's tremendous attraction, especially for young people, including those in the developed and rich Northern countries, and its spectacular success as a forum of ideas and more? The answer is simple. For some decades now, corporations and hegemonic states have ruled and shaped the world, making it a worse place to live in. In the name of the 'free market,' liberalisation and free trade, all kinds of policies have been thrust upon the world's peoples, robbing them of their rights, control over resources and democratic instruments, disrupting communities and bankrupting whole nations through ugly programmes like 'sructural adjustment' framed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. 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 unilaterally launched wars against other states in declared pre-emptive defence of their self-interests -- in defiance of world public opinion and opposition from a majority of nation-states. This has meant brazenly bypassing, weakening and undermining the multilateral world order that has been built over the past century. Besides misery, this imperialist hegemony has produced 'blowback' or a 'boomerang' reaction in the form of religion-driven terrorism and other forms of extremism. This has further destabilised the world, making it more unsafe for all.
The decision to hold the Forum first in Brazil was significant. Brazil is a major country that has been greatly affected by neo-liberal policies. On the other hand, different sectors of Brazilian society resist these policies, in the rural and urban areas, in bustees, factories, political parties, churches and schools. The richness of Brazilian grassroots organisations greatly inspired the WSF's development. Porto Alegre itself is situated in Brazil's southernmost province ruled by a government led by the Workers Party. The Workers Party is as much a people's movement as a left-wing political organisation which fights elections. Its member, the machinist Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva, is now Brazil's president.
The WSF's premise is that world today is more skewed than it was 20 or 50 years ago. At the end of World War-II, average North-South income disparities were 30:1. By 1980, they had doubled. Now they are about 85:1. But that doesn't mean that the majority of Northerners have prospered. The developed societies have become grossly more unequal. Corporations have raked in profits. But ordinary people there have suffered stagnation or a fall in incomes and economic security. The North is becoming a 'one-third-two-thirds' society, in which the top third of the population is prosperous and has a bright future. The bottom third is without much hope; it certainly has no secure employment nor much of a future. And the middle third hovers between these extremes.
Millions of citizens feel 'Another World is Possible' and they must fight for a just global order. The WSF provides their representatives -- grassroots organisations, NGOs, political parties, trade unions, and other movements -- a unique opportunity to interact. The WSF, as its Charter says, is not an organisation, not a united front platform, but 'an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and inter-linking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism.' Such groups are committed to 'building a society centred on the human person.'
The essential thrust of the WSF comes from peoples' movements which believe, and are working to demonstrate, that the path to sustainable development and social and economic justice lies in people-centred and self-reliant progress, rather than in neo-liberal globalisation.
The Mumbai WSF will primarily focus on issues that are of special concern to our part of the world, but are globally relevant: Imperialist Globalisation, Patriarchy, Militarism, Peace, Communalism (religious sectarianism and fundamentalism), and Casteism and Racism (oppression, exclusion and discrimination based on descent and work). The six-day event will have a complex format: two huge plenaries (with 80,000 people), 5 panel discussions and round-tables, four public meetings and four conferences (each attended by about 20,000 people); and 200 spaces for seminars and workshops. These will each have between 50 to 1,000 participants. But the bulk of them will have 50 to 200. The emphasis will be on participation and dialogue allowing for responses from the audience, question-and-answer sessions, etc.
In addition, there will be 31 self-organising conferences in 'solidarity tents.' The organisers have cleared conferences(4,000 people), workshops and other events on an astounding 1,600 subjects. They are trying hard to compress them
into 1,200 sessions. The speakers will reflect the diversity of the WSF process, with an emphasis on representation of women, the underprivileged and the most oppressed sections of society. Importantly, the agenda will feature cultural spaces for events such as theatre, music, living displays of crafts, folk dances, poetry recitations and films, as well as alliance-building sessions. Witnesses will present six to eight testimonials and voices of resistance every day.
WSF-Mumbai has not sprung out of thin air. It has been in preparation for almost two years. An Indian precursor to it was the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad last January, attended by 16,000 people. The immediate run-up has involved a umber of state-, city- and district-level conferences, as well as conventions along sectoral lines, including women, Dalits, Adivasis, trade unions, youth, agricultural workers and other social movements.
WSF is a massive, powerful, energetic, people-centred answer to all the cynics who never tire of repeating that there is no alternative to capitalist globalisation: it's here to stay; better put up with it; even better, join it. The main message that will ring out from Mumbai is: 'Another World is Possible'! Indeed, it is. We must fight for it.