Letters from India no. 27

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan - Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, ie. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum - Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Anastasia Laitila

SHIVALIK -- So, these might be my last words from India as my last week here begins. Sorry I wasn't able to write earlier, but I was on the road and after that ill. Now the last couple of days have been a mess trying to send Indians to Porto Alegre for the World Social Forum. Somehow, simple things become difficult here. And the difficult things? I am not very sure. In December I had the opportunity to visit Nepal and join a three-day international consultation on water and the World Commission on Dams Report organized by WAFED, Water and Energy User's Federation, Nepal. I knew that dams are a major issue in Asia, but I had no idea how large processes have been taking place in even such mountainous areas as Nepal during the last 50 years. It was very educating for me. The report of the World Commission of Dams has caused a lot of controversy since it was released two (I think) years ago, but this consultation aimed at moving beyond the report, finding out ways to utilize it. The report outlines 7 strategic priorities (such as gaining public approval for planned dam project), but the ways of implementing them are controversial. However it seems that the committee's work has been boundary breaking, since it included 12 people from very different backgrounds but great experience. I'm finalizing this letter in between power cuts. It happens often, during this winter almost frequently. Vijay's daughter noted that now the electricity is private (privatized in Delhi just 6 months back) nobody protests, but when it was government owned, everyone complained. So I have unexpectedly returned to Delhi since I was denied visa to Bangladesh (recent developments in this region do not support the free movement of people - for example, only anti-India Pakistani activist were given visa to come to the Asian Social Forum) and am now trying to cure my cold and cough. The weather here is quite cold on Indian standards, in Bihar the other day it even went to -0,5 degrees Celcius. In Delhi during the coldest night 200 people died and all schools were closed for some days. There are so many people without shelter or even any clothes to keep the cold out that I don't know what to do. Here I sit in my Finnish pullover, indoors, being very middle-class. (Another strange phenomenon is that by Indian standards I'm quite wealthy at the moment but when I go home, that's something else) What has happened during the last month is as difficult to summarize, but I'll let you know some of the things. One interesting experience was my visit to Tamil Nadu, the Southern State. I went over there on behalf of Siemenpuu Foundation to meet two groups that had submitted proposals, and was genuinely very taken by both of them. The other one, PAD (People's Action for Development), has a field office situated in a fisher village by the name of Vembar, facing the Gulf of Mannar. It was the first time I saw the Indian Ocean. The other was ODAM (Organization for Development and Maintenance), whose main office is in Tiruchuli, some 50 kilometres or so from Vembar. Both of these groups impressed me with their overwhelming hospitality (though they claimed it was inconvenient and minimum facilities, little did they know where all I've slept), warmth and anxiousness to communicate even when there was a language barrier. Another thing that never seizes to impress me since I come from a country where people don't speak to each other (note that I love and miss my country very much), is the fact that since face-to-face discussion is the only way to communicate and campaign properly in rural areas, these people travel often extensive distances and sit down with the people. And then there was me as an exotic oddity, all the children wanting to touch me because I am so white and so different. But they were very exited and happy, so for the very short period I spent there I managed not to feel like Queen Victoria in her queendom. But I had some great discussions in both groups. With Rajendra Prasad from PAD we noticed we shared many campaign ideas, such as supporting local production. In ODAM what really impressed me was the never-ending strength, courage and resourcefulness of these women self-help groups. Some of them were saying how I must have courage to travel such a long way as a single woman, where as most of them couldn't leave their street without a man before they joined the group. I have grown up thinking I should be able to do EVERYTHING myself, be totally independent if need be. And all the generations coming after me, will they know about all the rights they DON'T have to fight for? I realized as well how coming here, or anywhere where visible poverty exists, makes a person want to stay here and work here, and I had to question myself again, why is it that I have not made development work my priority. But the answer is quite simple: the existing problems are partly because of Western policies and our failure to do our work at home. For national problems, it is mainly up to the local people to address that, foreign interventions can take a very very wrong course, like in Afghanistan or what seems to be happening with Iraq. Sometimes we underestimate people's capacity to do things themselves, but more often we seem to think that the only (or the best?) way to contribute is by doing something that is visible, so we get the assurance our work has some effect and meaning. Somehow this reminds me of the globalisation debate, where on the other hand we have this abstract, natural force-like, inevitable globalisation process and on the other there's the grass-root propaganda but. What's missing most of the time are the governments/states, that still are the actors in international policy and trade. Another event from these past days is more or less the reason of my stay in India - the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh - but for some reason I find it the most difficult to put into words. Maybe it's partly because of the extensive discussion that is taking place afterwards on whether it was magnificent or exclusive. What definitely was good about it was that in some form or another, it brought together different segments of Indian people's movements, civil society organizations and others, and has stimulated a lot of discussion and many people are on board for the big test, possible World Social Forum in India. But mobilization in other Asian countries was not done properly, and Fitria indeed renamed the even Indian Social Forum. In addition the visa problems were there, and many groups and people from South Asia were not represented for this reason also. One of my tasks was to help organizing a workshop on corporatisation and privatization of water. Attendance was good, but I had hoped we'd be able to discuss about strategies on what to do about the ongoing GATS (WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services) negotiations, which include water collection, distrubition, purification, wastewater service etc. as "environmental services". Like other happenings of the sort, the ASF was like a big activist camp in a slight chaos, but to tell you the truth I was expecting much more chaos, with 10 000 people (give or take, this is an average based on hearsay), 300 workshops and god knows how many conferences and seminars. Plus of course the unscheduled events. But as social forums are striving for providing an open space, I think this was definitely there. For me at least. And it offered an interesting insight to the Indian movements. What really impressed me was the youth camp. I was speaking in the closing plenary, and the level of speakers was really high, I felt quite shy to speak last. But it was also the first time I came across sexuality rights movements (gay and lesbian but also others) in India, and was really taken by their abilities. As it is my last week in India, I feel a bit puzzled on what to say and do (latter mostly due to my prolonged illness). Somehow I just want to go home and adjust in peace for a couple of days. But one never knows what will happen next in this country.