World Social Forum begins in hectic mayhem

Thursday 15 January 2004, by Darren SHORE

Here in Mumbai, amidst a city of tumultuous yet functional disorganization, with no street lines and more smog than oxygen, the fourth World Social Forum is set to begin - an event well-suited to the atmosphere of the location.

At the NESCO company grounds in the neighbourhood of Goregaon, giant empty hangars - like those used to construct airplanes - await between 75,000 and 100,000 delegates, as well as 2,000 members of the international and domestic press. They have the option of taking the train to the venue, crammed in like sardines amidst the sweat, sandals and saris. But as there is already little room left for the locals - let alone us claustrophobic Caucasians with our pampered sense of personal space - the visitors may prefer the taxi.

These dented, tattered, worn-out vehicles, (painted a standard black thanks to a decision by someone with obvious bureaucratic genius who managed to forget India’s blazing sun), swerve past each other, in between the death-defying scooters which carry up to three helmetless people, missing one another by mere centimetres at times. All this amidst casually sauntering pedestrians who gamble with their lives like frogs crossing a six-lane highway.

And yes, these incoming do-gooders and those who will report on them will indeed experience the pleasure of transportation Mumbai-style: there isn’t a vacant hotel room for miles.
The dedicated volunteers of the Forum and Intercontinental Youth Camp, some of whom arrived months ago, have been making preparations for this mass arrival in the WSF headquarters on Samani Road in Prabadhevi, about an hour away. They work in much the same way as business happens on the street - a hectic group of people in mayhem who seem to have no pattern to their actions, yet have strangely managed to get things done.

They are ready for the press to come pounding through the door. The registration material is in order. The lists of events are printed. The calls are happening. Every paranoid westerner who fears her or his press-card might not be laminated or square enough is reassured. People work until four a.m., sometimes sleep at the office, and get up the next morning for another 16 hours in front of the screen. Emails. Reports. Translations. Instructions. Dedication.

Downtown, St-Xavier’s College, a mecca for the intelligent young bourgeois of Mumbai - the English-speaking, jeans-wearing, professionals-to-be - hosts training sessions for the volunteers who will manage services for the press at the WSF venue. There are about 90 students of journalism and tourism, about 85 of whom are female, whose professors think this will be a good experience for them. A professor from the school explains a bit about the Forum, and a lot about why it’s necessary - because of the rates of homelessness and poverty and joblessness and joylessness which lurk with increasing strength amidst the potential of this nation.

He is greeted with questions about how much this whole thing is really about India? And how many Indians are participating? And what would happen to the economy if the jobs left? And he answers with some rough statistics.

Journalists will be given tours of the NESCO grounds as of Thursday. They will want translations and information in Hindi and Spanish and Bengali and Tamil. The alternative media will be hard at work, producing content for consumption by the activist communities all around the world. Indy-media will radio-cast live all conferences and panels. IPS (Inter-Press Services) will produce a daily publication dedicated to WSF news.

"Ciranda," a coalition of freelancers and journalists, will produce a website with hundreds of well-organized independent reports. A media centre has been set up with all the equipment possible: computers, printers and Internet. (A computer program called LINUX will be used, provided by the Free Software Foundation along with technical support, so as to avoid supporting software produced by the insatiable Microsoft empire.)

Out on the street, on a sidewalk which hasn’t been repaired in a decade, a newspaper-vendor awaits with calm amidst the honking and bargaining and vociferous chatter, as if he had been there since long before the sidewalk was built, and would stay in the exact same spot if they took it away from under him.

The front page (no less) of one of the newspapers has an article of note: "Chomsky Not Attending World Social Forum." Apparently there was a conflict of the man’s busy schedule. That’s when you know you’re not in America, and the empires of Murdoch, Asper and Black are at a safer distance. You wouldn’t see the word Chomsky on any front page in America. Apparently Nelson Mandela is sick as well.

But this event is in not short of names: Arundathi Roy, the distinguished Indian author; Maude Barlowe, volunteer chairperson of the Council of Canadians; Vandana Shiva, physicist, philosopher of science and feminist; Michael Albert, founder of Z Magazine and ZNet; Chico Whittaker, from the Brazilian commission of justice and peace; and hundreds of other well-established veterans of the social justice movements.

A who’s who of international human rights and environmental rights campaigners and ethical super-stars is set to walk the stages before enthusiastic crowds in the coming week so there will be plenty of fodder for the corporate as well as the alternative and community medias - the big businesses who use the names as much as the content to sell their stories, a tactic inevitable if readers are more concerned about what is happening than why.

But coverage is coverage and the issues will be discussed. And irrespective of how this event will be presented, the forces of progress have succeeded in laying the stage for an event which will inject excitement and motion into the global struggle for peace, justice and equality, and place more of the real problems of society on both local and international agendas.

Darren Shore is a Montreal activist.

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