An Indian idea gets the world on its feet

Suddenly padyatras are being used as a new form of social mobilisation, all over the world

By Risto Isomaki
Published: Monday 15 June 1992

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)IT was in 1989 that we first thought of adapting the traditional Indian form of mass mobilisation - the padyatra - as a means of reaching out to people in Europe. Our Indian friends first gave us the idea and later helped us to develop it. We first "tested" the idea within Finland.

In June 1990, a group of us went on a march from Turku to Helsinki, a distance of 250 km, to protest the motorway construction programme of the Finnish government and to highlight the anomalies in our traffic planning. While we were not able to mobilise rnasses of people over these issues we found out that it was an excellent way to meet different people and to acquaint ourselves with the ground reality. We knocked on the doors of houses situated on land through which the motorway was to pass and talked to the residents. At first, there was some hesitation, but people soon started sharing their views and apprehensions on the issue with us.

On our part, we raised ayguments like the green-house effect caused by vehicular pollution and the need to cut down on present consumption levels for ecological reasons. Southern participants, who had accompanied us on this march, helped to convey the global dimension of the issue.

The march ended with a seminar on self-determination, environment and development. It helped start a process vKhich finally resulted in the founding of the Alliance, of Northern People for Environment and Development (ANPED), which may well become the largest NGO-coalition ever-seen in the industrialised world. The ANPED has since been active in politically mobilising the people of Europe on various issues, ranging from the economic consequences of a united Europe to the UNCED negotiations.

The ideas which emerged from our padyatras in Finland have been well received by the traffic movements in other European countries. So far, the urban traffic action groups had not paid attention to systematically contacting all the urban and rural communities acutely threatened by various road construction is schemes. I also see the distinct possibility of activists in other countries learning from our approach and experiences. Our intention was to choose relatively new mobilisatiun strategies for reaching out to ordinary people while simultaneously spending time with other activists from different movements to clarify our own perceptions.

Many caught the "march fever." For instance, British peace organisations staged a two-week "Walk for the Earth" from Manchester to London on May 16. The French and the Spanish are not far behind. The campaign committees for the "500 Years of Indigenous and Popular Resistance in America" in both these countries are planning to organise walks from Paris to Barcelona. In Finland, for Earth Day, there was a walk from Hauhri to Helsinki in April and on June 5, a five-day peace walk from Amman to Jerusalem is on the cards.

Across the Atlantic, too, the padyatra spirit is manifesting itself. On February 1, "peace pilgrims" set out on a journey across USA to highlight a multiplicity of issues. By the time the marchers vend their way to the Nevada nuclear test site on October 12, they would have covered a distance of 4,200 kin. The "peace pilgrims" have two objectives in taking to their feet. First, they want an end to uranium mining, the dumping of radioactive wastes, and a stop to the production and testing of nuclear weapons. They are demanding nothing short of a comprehensive test ban. Second, they want to protest against the continuing oppression of native Americans, at a time when the US government goes about organising extravaganzas to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of the Americas.

This very same issue will find an echo in the Great Star March in South America as well. Here, American Indian and Latin American groups are organising a march to commemorate "500 Years of Resistance to the White Man". On October 1, they will set out from seven points in the South American continent, by bus or train. By October 26, just as spring sets in here, they would have converged on Cerro Rico, Bolivia, like the Latin American liberators,Sucre and Simon Bolivar, did in 1825, holding the flags of all the nations of the world.

This is how an idea which originated with Mahatma Gandhi in India could be another way to critique the dominant patterns of development and governance.

Risto Isomaki is an environmental activist attached to the Finnish Volunteer

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