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Alternative world gathers in Asia

At least 75,000 WSF participants are expected to converge on Mumbai

The fourth World Social Forum, which began on Friday in Mumbai, India, is expected to draw more than 75,000 advocates of alternative forms of globalisation.

Switzerland will be represented by a delegation of about 50 people, including parliamentarians, trade unionists and members of non-governmental organisations.

The first three World Social Forums (WSF) were held in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Now it is the turn of Mumbai to host this annual gathering of organisations and movements opposed to “neo-liberal globalisation”.

From January 16-21, between 75,000 and 100,000 people from 130 countries are expected to converge on India’s commercial capital to discuss the idea that “Another World Is Possible” – the slogan that has accompanied the event over the past four years.

The programme includes some 1,200 seminars, meetings and events devoted to a wide range of subjects, from the aftermath of the Iraq war to the situation in the Palestinian territories.

Other themes include the state of the world economy, water resources and food supplies. Much attention will also be paid to India’s Dalits or “untouchables”.

A global forum

The great innovation this time is undoubtedly the WSF’s move to another continent – a move that has been under consideration since the first gathering was held in Porto Alegre in 2001.

The event will be staged in a metropolis embodying many of the contradictions which characterise the countries of the South in this age of globalisation: on the one hand, enormous social, environmental and demographic problems [according to the latest estimates, Mumbai has a population of 18 million]; on the other, a rapidly expanding economy.

“By moving to Asia, the World Social Forum is becoming a truly global event,” says Sergio Ferrari, journalist and press officer of E-Changer, one of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which have helped organise the Swiss delegation’s visit to Mumbai.

Spotlight on Asia

For geographical – and also for cultural and political – reasons, the Porto Alegre gathering was essentially a Latin American and European affair.

Asia and Africa were of course represented, but did not play a central role. With the choice of Mumbai, this situation is set to change.

“Half of the world’s population lives in Asia,” observes Sergio Ferrari. “It is one of the most socially dynamic areas of our planet.”

And Mumbai promises to turn the spotlight on this dynamism, with all its many facets.

Over half the participants are of Asian – and particularly Indian – origin. The biggest foreign delegation is from Pakistan, a sign of the growing détente between these two nuclear powers.

Swiss delegation

A sizeable Swiss delegation will also be present in Mumbai. Organised by the Swiss Coalition of Development Organizations, it will be the largest Switzerland has sent to the World Social Forum.

It is made up of around 50 people, including six parliamentarians and a number of trade unionists, journalists, members of NGOs and representatives of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Swiss Coalition’s Pepo Hofstetter, who is coordinator of the delegation, said the WSF was above all an opportunity to meet representatives from other NGOs and share experiences.

Meet, listen and learn

“The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and the European meetings held in Florence in 2002 and Paris in 2003 were particularly useful in enabling us to build a network of international collaboration on the issue of tax evasion,” he said. “Now we are working on a similar project relating to drinking water.”

“I hope that in India it will be possible to hear the voices of those who have nothing, who are completely destitute,” said the Green Party’s Ruth Genner, one of the parliamentarians in the delegation.

“In Mumbai, we shall be discussing some of the world’s most serious problems,” she added.

“I would like to see members of rightwing parties taking part in an event of this kind. Perhaps they would come to understand that putting up barriers is not the way to solve such problems.”

More than a protest

For the participants, the WSF is more than just a protest against the World Economic Forum meeting held in Davos: they see it as an opportunity to offer alternatives to the dominant economic and social model.

“This is a meeting place for grass-roots movements and a kind of world intellectual counter-elite,” claimed Social Democrat parliamentarian Rudolf Strahm, who has attended the WSF on two previous occasions.

“The World Social Forum has a pioneering role to play in the development of new ideas and approaches,” he noted.

“It is a sounding board for the ideas being discussed within movements and organisations all over the world.”

swissinfo, Andrea Tognina in Mumbai

Those attending the meeting include:
– the former chief economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz;
– the Iranian winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi;
– the former Israeli and Palestinian ministers, Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed, promoters of the Geneva Accord;
– the Indian writer, Arundhati Roy.

The Swiss delegation includes:
– Social Democrat parliamentarians Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, Liliane Maury-Pasquier, Maria Roth Bernasconi and Rudolf Strahm;
– the Green Party’s Ruth Genner and Luc Recordon;
– Vaud-based theologian Shafique Keshavjee.

Swiss NGOs (see links) are also involved in organising some of the WSF activities.

Between 75,000 and 100,000 people are expected to attend the World Social Forum in Mumbai (formerly Bombay).
The first WSF was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001.
In 2005, the event will return to Porto Alegre.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR