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Wednesday, Jan 21, 2004

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Kerala and the World Social Forum

K.G. Kumar

AS the ongoing World Social Forum (WSF) at the sprawling NESCO grounds in Mumbai's Goregaon suburb draws to a grand close on Wednesday, nearly 100,000 men, women and youth will be packing their bags to return to the 132 countries they came from.

And among them will be a sizeable group from Kerala, including some of the more familiar faces of the alternative, pro-poor and "anti-globalisation" movement, such as the Dalit leader, Ms C.K. Janu, liberation theologist and organiser of fisherfolk, Fr Thomas Kocherry, and members of the Sex Workers Forum.

The only difference is that, even as they go back to a State in this very own nation, they will actually be returning to an almost virtually independent country, a land that long ago made a tryst with globalisation through trade links and migrant workers. Yet - and that is what links Kerala's concerns to those of the WSF - they enjoy the benefits of a superior quality of life and civil rights that have ensued from decades of struggle centred around the slogan "another world is possible".

That, precisely, was the theme of the 1,200 events at WSF, whose original Charter of Principles defines it as "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, and are committed to building a society centred on the human person."

The first three annual meetings of the WSF were held in the left-leaning city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, which many saw as a perfect place to illustrate the adverse impact of economic liberalisation. But when the last meeting only attracted 200 delegates from Asia, home to nearly half the world's poor, the decision was made to shift the venue to India.

And so this year the WSF came to Mumbai, a city that is, ironically enough, as far right as you can get in India, commercially speaking.

And for a State like Kerala, traditionally biased towards the left of the political spectrum, to be hobnobbing with the radicals in the midst of India's financial capital was the sort of delicious irony that often defines Kerala as an outlier in the development debate.

Many of those from Kerala, disappointed with the sobered-down, accommodative and inclusive approach of the WSF, sought to ally with the alternative conference, titled "Mumbai Resistance 2004", organised by far-left groups who felt that the WSF had been co-opted by capitalism, best exemplified by the fact that the previous WSF sessions had been partly funded by the Ford Foundation, for long a symbol of American capitalism and hegemony, the prime enemy of participants of the WSF.

Today, though, no one can ignore the power of voices of protest, like those articulated at WSF 2004. Even Mr James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, says, "The 4th World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, comes not a moment too soon. As 2004 begins, conflict and terrorism continue to grab the headlines, while issues of inequality and injustice are not given the urgency they require."

"From `participatory budgeting' in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the empowerment of citizens to track education expenditures in Uganda to social audits in Rajasthan, India, and community score cards in Malawi, social accountability is growing, making the difference between success and failure," he added.

Education, empowerment, social accountability are concepts very dear to the hearts of most Keralites. Arguably, the very existence of the WSF - and its continuing presence - can be attributed to the success of the social development of regions like Kerala, which defied the logic of capital-led growth and reasserted the power of civil society and public action.

Ideally, the WSF should have been held in Kerala, but for a State so cramped for space, hosting such a mega-event would have been impossible. Nonetheless, the spirit of WSF 2004 will long hover over the State.

The writer can be contacted at

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