Published: The Economic Times, January 24, 2004,

By Pradeep S Mehta

Curtains have come down on the alternate stage, the World Social Forum. There was nothing much which came out, though over a hundred thousand people from all over the world converged at Mumbai to look for an alternative to the existing world order.

Not that everyone who was there had any inkling about what they came there for. It was a jamboree and as was dubbed by some, another Kumbh Mela. At the Kumbh Mela, which happens once in 12 years, people come with the faith that a dip in the holy confluence would wash away their sins. At Mumbai, it was someone else’s sins that people had gathered to wash away. It was organised chaos, to say the least.

The WSF was conceptualised as an alternative to the World Economic Forum. But the differences are too many. Firstly, the organising committee for the social forum is an amorphous lot of activists, who may not necessarily agree with each other on most things. Secondly, the agenda is negative rather than positive. No implementable alternate agenda is put across. A jamboree is held, which puts across ridiculous ideas and ludicrous proposals, and globalisation is condemned as being absolutely bad.

Many debates were held among the converted, yet there was little agreement on each of them. Perhaps, one issue which had a universal appeal was the increasing US hegemony, of which Iraq is but one symbol. Somehow, anything which is associated with Americans gets lumped into the larger globalisation debate. However, the very construct of the meeting on such a large scale is but due to globalisation. The communication infrastructure at the WSF, international transport used by protesters from across the world, use of English as the link language, use of international money for all their spending and the vast coverage for the event by most media channels, sums up the equation as: “Anti globalisation with the help of globalisation”.

Most of the tourist activists came here on international funding, some of which are indirectly linked to funds from international financial institutions and large American companies and philanthropists. Arundhati Roy in her opening address spoke about targeting some of the US companies that have benefited from the Iraq war and of closing their offices world-wide. Though the Iraq war raises a genuine concern against the increasing US hegemony, would it be wise to shut down TNCs who employ millions of people all over the world? If one endorses the idea of hurting a US company, wouldn’t boycott be a better response, if it can be successful? In any case, imposing the same view on others would represent totalitarianism.

Most WSF delegates were not even sure why they were there? Rayban sunglasses, Nokia cell phones, Nike and Reebok shoes were a common sight at the WSF and interestingly worn by the same people who were stridently voicing anti-globalisation slogans. Most organisations are not even expected to maintain any leftist or rightist ideologies. The fight against child labour can be as well fought in today’s globalised world as in a world without TNCs, WTO or World Bank. Similarly protests over rights of the poor and marginalised can be heard in both a neo-liberal and a non-liberal world. Several organisations dealing with the marginalised and the underprivileged were protesting against globalisation. Corporates and international NGOs are the major funders of these NGOs. Probably these NGOs would be the biggest losers if anti-globalisation and anti-TNC fantasies ever came true.

A disturbing trend was the use of WSF as a podium for promoting the ideologies of communist and socialist parties. The same communist parties have more or less become pro-liberal in Kerala and West Bengal , or in Vietnam and China . They have changed after realising that they have failed to live up to the promises of full employment and better living conditions. The emphasis on liberty and economic freedom over security has led to the rejection of communism and socialism all over the world. The so-called torch bearers at the WSF proposed another world, but failed to realise that in a society where the ideal is next to impossible, any other alternative to liberalism would be a disaster.

Joseph Stiglitz used a good expression: “Protest the wrongs! Celebrate the opportunities”. Instead of merely painting the whole of globalisation as imperialist and unfair, one should target the problems, provide alternatives, market those alternatives and instead of making another world possible, create a better world of the present.

A good way of looking at the WSF is in the form of balancing the increasing tilt towards capitalism as an ideal. The WSF brings to the forefront the need for countries to superimpose their development objectives over liberalisation objectives. An organisation from Korea “Globalise from Below” was protesting against the forced liberalisation brought about by the IMF and World Bank. Similarly another NGO organised an event against water privatisation. An Indian NGO launched a movement against the dumping of GM seeds by US companies. These are the voices of change that question the method of globalisation as against the phenomenon of globalisation and this is the right approach. If you ask for a yard you get an inch. Similarly if the WSF challenges the existence of globalisation, of international financial institutions and of capitalism, the least they can achieve is that policy makers would review their decisions from the view of a marginalised farmer who is contemplating suicide after his Monsanto-supplied seeds failed.

For all those messiahs who preach that the world should be more socially concerned than economically, I can but rely on what Adam Smith said many moons ago: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest”.