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Turning the Tide

Lessons learned at the Asia Social Forum

Angela Bischoff January 23, 2003

X http://www.rabble.ca/everyones_a_critic.shtml?x=18439 (external link)

After five days at the Asia Social Forum in Hyderabad in south central India earlier this month (a lead-up to the World Social Forum which began today), I was emotionally exhausted.

Story after story, and testimony after testimony, described horrors imposed on poor rural and urban communities under the guise of globalization and western-style ‘development.’

Mega-dams, industrial developments, privatization of services, agribusiness and mechanization have all led to the impoverishment of farmers, eroded lands, ravaged forests, displacement and mass migration, slum dwellings, prostitution, child labour, child trafficking, indentured slavery, malnutrition and more. And for what? The domination and control of economies by transnational corporations. It was heart wrenching to witness the personal stories enacted through popular theatre, photo exhibits and testimonials.

Yet I also felt a trembling beneath my feet at the Asia Social Forum — 15,000 people marching and dancing and pulsating, barely containing their anger, straining to throw out the brutishness ruling their land, making links, organizing on the Internet, learning the language and economics of globalization — and rebelling.

If there is anywhere that can create an alternative to the global, neo-liberal economic path we are on, it’s India, the largest democracy in the world. Here 700 million people live in villages, growing their own food, most of their communities still deficient in infrastructure, education, health, employment, and sustainable incomes. They’ve got little to lose and lots to gain by resisting. The battlefronts are drawn.

“The United States of America, supported by some of the developed countries, has launched an ambitious and daring project to recolonise the third world,” explained Mohideen Abdul Kader of the Third World Network. “International organizations like the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF and even the United Nations itself have become instruments for subjugating our nations and exploiting our resources.”

Globalization offers nothing more than the spread of Kentucky Fried Chicken, french fries, Lipton Tea and Transcendental Meditation, according to Dr. Chalam of Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, India. The essence of India was once social and cultural, he said, but today it is about making money, and in that game, the world’s poor — the majority of the planet — lose.

During recent decades, Coca Cola railroaded its way over twenty-two Indian bottling companies, establishing a monopoly in India’s soft drink market. In a country where one third of the villages lack adequate water, Coke has often been assured a free and limitless supply, shrinking the availability of clean water for villagers, contaminating ground water and enlarging the distances that women travel in search of drinking water. When villagers protest, they’re arrested. In Bhopal in 1984 American-owned Union Carbide gas plant leaked deadly toxins, killing 20,000 people over the next eighteen years. Victims still suffer in pain, compensation is still woefully inadequate, the site has still not been cleaned and still continues to poison drinking water and soil. No charges have been laid. Today, 400 million Indians are undernourished. Starvation has increased over the last decade commensurate with the government’s gradual disinvestment in the public sector as per the dictates of the international banking institutions. Ninety per cent of the Indian population eats thirty per cent less food than they did ten years ago. India has seen irregular monsoons and droughts in some areas over the past six years that have devastated agriculture; such ecological disruptions are what we expect to see in a changing climate caused primarily by over-consumption of northern nations.

“They take our water. They take our jungles. They take our stories. And they take our women. We’re seeing commodification of women in the free market, in the globalization of our economy,” said Nimalka Fernando of Sri Lanka.

In the last two decades, 600,000 Sri Lankan women have emigrated to the Gulf to work as domestic labour, while the men have moved to urban centres and industrial zones to work as unskilled labour. This all has come about since the late 1970’s when the government of the day abandoned agricultural production in favour of western-style industrialization.

“Sri Lanka is the perfect example of failure of the free-market economy,” said Fernando. “It has made us an impoverished society.”

The analysis was clear at the Asia Social Forum: strategies must include restructuring our governing institutions from the bottom up. Natural resources surrounding the village community must be restored to community control. Industrialization needs to be on a human scale, sustainable and dispersed to where people live rather than forcing people to migrate. Rural infrastructure, such as drinking water and sanitary sewers, must be a priority.

Political decentralization is paramount. Conservation of all resources is necessary, including extensive recycling, biomass fuels and other renewable energy sources. And women must be represented fully and equally at every juncture.

Although it seems the currents are all flowing to the advantage of transnational corporations, the Indian resistance movement may just turn the tide. As youth activist Ranjana Misra put it, “The 21st century is ours!”

Angela Bischoff, formerly with the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, is travelling in India with her bike. Her last article for rabble was Spare Some Climate Change?



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