Another dismissal is possible

By Sunita Narain
Published: Sunday 15 February 2004

The World Social Forum (WSF) concluded in Mumbai. Then began the World Economic Forum in Davos. A little before these, a glitzy automobile fair in Delhi. One after the other, loud and strident images. But even as an intensely stimulating energy of dissent swelled at WSF, I kept feeling the ground was slipping from under our feet. Why do I say this when it is clear that the WSF message, the need for a fair and just world, is gaining ground?

Because this message -- our message -- is in danger of being lost in pedantic, ideological and, allow me to say so, simplistic prose. The terminology of the so-called anti-globalisation group is becoming its biggest problem. This is not to say that the language of the so-called capitalistic mafia is not as sterile. But it is backed by power and it is winning. It does not need to reinvent itself. We do.

I know that our voices possess nuances. We have changed with changing realities. But our postures have not changed. The challenge is to mutate our message so that we not only capture the space for dissent, but also create the space for change. Otherwise, in this deafening multilogue, we will be the biggest losers.

Let me dissect some of the messages for you. Are we anti-privatisation per se or against mafia-privatisation, done without restraint or regulation? For instance, let's take water services. It is definitely true that big corporates see water as a lucrative business. As business, they prefer to service the rich at the cost of the poor. As business, they are greedy for profits, if necessary at the cost of the environment. But it is also equally important to accept that the water supply system is not working in the country. The public sector utilities that see water as a social good also make sure that the poor and the rich do not get much water and definitely not clean water. But while the rich can buy bottled water the poor cannot.

In this system, water has been commodified. But because we still believe that water is a social good, the rich end up benefiting and don't even begin to pay for their gluttonous thirst.

Therefore, you cannot avoid the need to reform the water sector. What you have to determine are principles and a reform framework. For this, we will have to accept that water is already an "economic good" for some.

But we can still ensure that water remains a social good for many. Even as we accept water is priced, we can make sure the framework society sets is based on principles of social justice. I would argue that everyone should get a certain amount of clean water as a human right. Rest is paid for. The more you use, the more you pay. For this you need to install water meters so that distributive justice is ensured.

The private water sector comes in, if necessary, only after this policy and regulatory framework is set up. They can run sewage plants, water supply systems. But they do not determine the policy. If the poor need to be subsidised by the rich, it should be done as part of the agreement. Therefore, I would not be against the private sector per se. I would also not be for or against subsidies per se. But I would definitely rule against the current system, which subsidises rich farmers of the US, the EU or the middle-classes of Delhi or Mumbai.

The same is the case with trade or globalisation. To be against globalisation, cannot mean being against the economic and technological interdependence of modern society. Surely that would be silly; this structure is virtually impossible to dismantle by now. But what we must do is demand reform -- get it reworked in the interests of all. Almost everyone agrees today that the system, particularly the global trading system, is rigged against the poor.

But equally, global governance will demand global institutions run on the principles of political governance and not market transactions. How does dismantling the multilateral World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the Bretton Woods institutions help in this regard? Can we really hope to replace them with 'more' institutions that are 'just'? I believe what we need is to strategise on how we can work these institutions to become more globally accountable. Democratic, in other words.

Similarly, I fail to understand how we can be completely for or deadly against government. I agree governments should not run hotels or airlines. At the same time, believing the private sector will do all is equally ludicrous. Governments will have to invest in public services. The irony today is that the private vehicle is subsidised, while the bus is not. We are investing in massive highways and systematically decimating our railway systems. But again, if we don't accept the need for reform in the railways, or the public education or health systems, we will merely be fooling ourselves.

Also weak governments are as disastrous as intrusive ones. If we want to influence the role the state plays, we have to come up with ways to better work our democracies. To my mind, the question always is: how can we deepen the processes of change in our favour?

Speaking at the WSF, writer Arundhati Roy said: "it's not good enough to be right. Sometimes, if only in order to test our resolve, it's important to win something." I agree with her. But I would argue that to win, we will need to engage and capture the middle ground and paint it in the colours we want. Polarising the message simply doesn't help. It rebounds, makes caricatures of us. Good to listen to. Easy to dismiss.

-- Sunita Narain

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