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  • The poor do not have access to resources. Whose world is it?

    By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

    At the Asian Social Forum, Mari Marcel Thekaekara recorded the straight-from-the-heart testimonies of people who have suffered injustice and exploitation, people who bear the consequences of globalisation

    The Voices of Victims sessions at the Asian Social forum, Hyderabad, were different. What made them different was the fact that these were not speeches on economics or up-in-the-air, above-everyone's-head verbosity. They were from-the-heart, completely spontaneous stories told by people who have suffered as a result of globalisation, at the hands of the World Bank-funded, government-led development as in Narmada, or been caught up in a complex ugly conflict which leaves no winners such as Palestine. Or suffered due to the handing over of common lands to companies and businesses as in Tamil Nadu. Listening to a victim directly has a totally different impact. It makes a TV newsclip come alive.

    The Voices of Victims Panel presented, over four days, people from different parts of the globe who have suffered injustice and exploitation.

    Sharif Mohammad Omar Khalid, a Palestinian farmer, was there to tell his story. "How can I tell you such a complex story in ten minutes?" he began ruefully. Then there was no stopping the flow. He talked about the unjust land laws which have enabled Israel to confiscate Arab land. About how he has been in and out of prison for daring to fight for the freedom of his people. And the newest weapon which brooks no argument, "your land is being confiscated for security reasons." Khalid belongs to the Land Defence General Committee and he defends his peoples' cause with passion. And absolute conviction, starting from the history of the Palestinian problem with the creation of Israel in 1948 to the present building of the hated 'new Berlin Wall'. He brings alive the struggle of the Palestinian people.

    A more homegrown struggle was to come from Pon Sundaresan, 57-year-old panchayat vice president of Perungudi in Pudukottai district, Tamil Nadu. But at the last minute, he was allegedly held back because of a police case. On his behalf Sri Addappan told the tale. He spoke as an active member of the Campaign for Right to Livelihood and Food Security, Tamil Nadu, to highlight the plight of a group of landless dalit farm families who are threatened with eviction from a 100-acre village common land which they have enjoyed for several generations. By a new policy, the Tamil Nadu government proposes to give 2 million hectares of rainfed land on 30-year leases to corporations (order Ms no 131, Agriculture [WLD Cell] Department dated 23.05.2002). The land is to be given on lease, 1000 acres per applicant. This is an unconstitutional reversal to a feudal order. After independence the government ordered large holdings to be curtailed by the Land Ceiling Act in order to liberate poor farmers and tenants from feudalism. Now we are reverting to colonial times. But the government has met its match in the people of Perungudi and Poovampatti. These villages have a population of 5,200 people. Of these, 2,500 are dalits. The arrival of district officials to survey their 150-acre commons with a view to giving it to a corporation infuriated the people. They are determined to resist. Taking on the government and corporations is not an easy task. But strange things have happened before. Like David and Goliath.

    Narmada has been on everyone's lips. But few have had the opportunity to come face to face with an adivasi woman from the valley. At this panel all the complex issues surrounding the dam were presented in the words of Geethaben, a simple woman who suffers the consequences of globalisation, at the hands of the World Bank-funded, government-led development.

    From Kashmir came a 14-year-old boy, Shabir Karam, whose father was killed by a grenade. The starkness of that tragedy hits you when the child tells his story. Then you realise that 80 per cent of the people of Kashmir have suffered similar losses. And suddenly the Kashmiri issue ceases to be just an issue, something you read about. It's in your face, and there's no escaping it.

    Shabir's father Gulam Mohammed was a vendor selling cloth for a commission. His two sisters added to the family income by spinning pashmina. In 1995, Gulam was killed by a grenade hurled at the security forces. His seven-year-old son could not grasp the fact that his father had died. He kept asking for him. "When will my father come home?" When the realisation dawned that his father was gone forever, the boy went into shock. He became disturbed, depressed.

    The family received Rs 1 lakh as compensation for the father's death. This was used to marry off Shabir's two sisters. This was the family priority. Since Shabir was the only surviving male, it was his responsibility to look after his family. He began working as a salesboy in a shop, earning Rs 300 per month. His sisters spun pashmina, and brought in another Rs 300. When he was at his lowest point, dropped out of school, working in a shop, the Secure Future Project began helping him go to school, paying his fees and getting him into a supportive counselling session to lift him out of his depression and trauma. Shabir told his story on behalf of all the other children of Kashmir who have suffered because of the terrible conflict that has robbed them of their childhood and future.

    Deena Farah of Afghanistan gave a graphic account of the struggles of the women of Afghanistan. Her middle class parents were keen on educating their children and ensured that Deena continued her studies even after she was married.

    One day a female relative asked Deena to help her read a letter from her husband living abroad. Deena complied and on discovering that all the family were illiterate offered to take reading classes for them. Her classes grew rapidly in size and popularity. Everyone was happy. Till the Taliban struck. They came for her husband, took him to jail and beat him for 24 hours till he was reduced to a broken mass of pain. Then they began extorting money from Deena to release him. In spite of paying them, her husband arrived with internal injuries and a broken back and died, tragically and unnecessarily, because there was no adequate medical help in Mazhar, their hometown.

    Deena survived the loss of her husband but she did not give up hope. Today she works for her people, in health and education. Her spirit is unbroken as she continues, a single mother, to educate and help her people tear down the curtain of illiteracy which years of fundamentalist Taliban rule imposed on the women of Afghanistan.

    No forum which talks about human rights abuse can be complete without a voice from Gujarat to talk about the atrocities which occurred there last March. Rape, torture, mass murder, total loss of property... such a scenario would send any community into shock and despair. The chilling part for Gujarati Muslims is that this was not just revenge and mob fury, which has been part of Indian history for centuries now. This was a pogrom. Calculated, cold-bloodedly planned to effect a final solution to rid Gujarat of its Muslim population. The mob leaders came armed with lists giving details about the number of family members in each household.

    But the story is better told by Waheedaben, 21, a gutsy little Muslim girl whose family escaped while their house was being burnt during the recent Gujarat carnage. But who returned to fight even though they are the only Muslim family in an area dominated by the RSS and Bajrang Dal. "We don't want to stay among people who hate us. But we have no choice."

    Laxman and Mohini Singh gave a voice to all the dalit labourers who suffer at the hands of upper caste landlords.

    "Is it a sin to be a dalit, to be poor?" asks Laxman Singh plaintively. "If you are rich and from the upper caste you can get everything - money can buy everything, even justice."

    Laxman Singh, a dalit labourer from Gothakar village in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, walked before us on crutches. Both his legs are amputated. His crime? He was a bonded labourer who dared to ask his landlord, Gurjar Sarpanch Atar Singh, for his hard-earned wages, because his family was starving. A dalit who defied centuries-old traditions had to be taught his lesson, his place in society. So the landlord's cronies came by Laxman's house to send a clear message to him and all the other dalits. A lesson no one would ever forget. They beat him senseless, battering him to a point where both his legs were so badly smashed that nothing could be done to save them. This was compounded by the fact that he was poor and in the local hospital which was not the best place for a critically injured person. And so Laxman Singh was taught his lesson.

    Mohini Singh is a fighter. It is she who supports her husband and fights vociferously for justice. She is a panchayat member and this has infuriated the Gurjar sarpanch even more. Mohini has suffered at the hands of the Gurjar community but prefers not to talk about it. Laxman's brother died of the thrashing he received. Their 80-year-old father was made "a murga" that is, he was forced to crouch on the ground with his arms crossed in front holding both ears and crawl around the circle of onlookers in that position.

    The family was so terrorised by the threats and violence that they fled from the village to Jaipur. Most of the other families followed suit.

    They live in penury on the mercy of others. After running from pillar to post, and though every newspaper has featured their story, the perpetrators of the crime walk free. They continue to threaten and intimidate the dalits of the area.

    As for financial support, Laxman received Rs 10,000 from the Chief Minister's Relief Fund and another Rs 25,000 from the Welfare Society, neither of which sufficed to pay for his medical treatment plus their relocation in Jaipur with no income. Laxman and Mohini have been supported by Jatav, a friend who now lives with them in fear of his life.

    But this is a normal scenario for dalits in Rajasthan and indeed in many other parts of the country.

    Dina Chan spoke for the commercial sex workers of Cambodia. She was deprived of a normal childhood because her parents were very poor. She went to live with her aunt in Phnom Penh so she could study. To help support herself she washed dishes as a child. When she was 17, her troubles really started. She was raped on her return from school by a man with a knife. Her aunt scolded her saying she had been careless and silly.

    She left school and began looking for jobs. She was trafficked from Phnom Penh to Stroeung Treng, lured into being a sex worker by false promises.

    "I remember one day," she recalls, "I was taken out of the brothel by a man who owned a slaughterhouse. There seven of his workers raped me, each of them twice. I fell down unconsciousness and when I woke up at 3 am I could hear the pigs crying loudly. I wept as I realised that my life was not any different from those pigs.

    "I was bought and sold many times. Moved from brothel to brothel. I ended up with a soldier who took me to a brothel owned by another soldier. I was used by all the soldiers who came from the battlefield apart from earning my daily share for the brothel owner. After four years in the claws of inhumanity, I got AIDS.

    "While I worked in the brothels I realised that we women were victims of the rich and powerful. But whenever my friends were rescued, the men who had bought them for the brothels were released. Why? Not enough evidence!

    "After all this, my family abandoned me. They were ashamed of me. Now I work as a sex worker and I run a union to unite sex workers to fight for basic rights and freedom. All of us in our group know starvation, discrimination, hatred, slavery and violence. Many of us left our villages in the hope that we would get jobs and have better lives. We were trapped by poverty and fell into the trafficking racket. Our concern now is to see that other young women do not fall into the same trap. When the poor do not have access to resources or when the majority of people are powerless, whose world is it? Or whose society?"

    Then there was Nozomi Bando, who spoke about the discrimination against the Buraku in Japan. The discrimination, based on their social status or descent, goes back 400 years in Japanese history. It is a sort of caste system that exists in Japanese society. According to the government survey of 1993, there are 4,442 Buraku districts widely spread across Japan with 298,385 Buraku families with a population of 892,751. In reality however, there are over 6,000 Buraku communities and the Buraku population is believed to exceed 3 million people.

    There is no clear distinction in appearance, language or religion between the Burakumin and the non-Buraku Japanese. But they have been forced to live in certain districts, to engage in certain jobs and to marry only those from Buraku backgrounds. So they continue to suffer discrimination in employment, marriage, work and community life on the grounds that they were born of Buraku parents.

    Discriminatory statements and derogatory and offensive graffiti against the Buraku have been found on walls. Increasingly, the Internet is being used to list the locations of Buraku communities, to brand certain celebrities as Buraku implying this makes them inferior and inciting people to "Kill all the Burakumin."

    "Buraku people engage in leather work. This was considered 'impure'. With globalisation, cheaper goods are available, affecting Buraku livelihoods. Non-Buraku people have started making leather. But this does not make them impure. Only we are impure. We remain impure even if we do not do 'impure' work. The entire Japanese economy is in recession and we are the worst hit."

    Mangamma's husband Ramakrishna died on September 9, 2000. He succumbed to injuries from a brutal assault by lathi-wielding policemen. His crime? He dared to rescue women protestors who were being lathi-charged during a Chalo Assembly march he was leading.

    Ramakrishna mobilised thousands of people to march to the Andhra Pradesh state assembly to protest the hike in electricity. In February 1999, the Government of Andhra Pradesh took a Rs 60,000 million World Bank loan to restructure the power sector. Translated, this meant privatising the sector and therefore a 60-100 per cent hike in the cost of power. Some families have found their electricity bills exceeding their house rents. But the people of AP rose in protest - through numerous rallies, marches, hunger strikes and gheraos.

    Ramakrishna was a simple washerman but had a strong social conscience that saw him emerge as a leader of the poorest communities of Khammam district. He was a cheerful, friendly, helpful soul. Qualities which helped to quickly propel him into a leadership role. This was to prove his downfall.

    On August 28, 2000, as the Chalo Assembly procession wended its way, the police began a lathi charge on the leftist leaders and the women in the forefront. Simultaneously, they began firing tear gas shells, water cannons and lathi-charging the protestors. Ramakrishna, who tried to protect the women, was beaten mercilessly till he fell down unconscious. His followers rushed him to Apollo hospital, but ten days later he was declared dead.

    His pregnant wife Mangamma delivered six months later. She received no help from the state government. The All India Democratic Womens' Association has submitted a memorandum to the NHRC requesting an inquiry. Mangamma was at the Asian Social Forum to tell us her husband's tragic tale.

    The '90s saw the entrance of major multinationals into Sri Lanka. Among them was an American-based company Freeport-McMoran which managed to bag the contract to exploit, mine, refine and export 40,000 metric tonnes of the highest grade phosphate fertiliser annually for 10 years. The US government negotiated purchase rights to a 50 square kilometre region around Eppawala, and a 675 sq km buffer zone around that. They planned to turn this area, which is home to more than 12,000 farmer families, pristine forests, countless endangered species and extensive 2000-year-old archaeological preserves, monuments and irrigation tanks, into a gigantic phosphate strip mine.

    Mamankadawala Piyaratne Thero, a charismatic Buddhist monk, led a protest to save the area from the strip miners. On Sri Lanka's 50th Independence Day, while the rest of the country celebrated, 20,000 people fasted under a sacred Bodhi tree in protest against the proposed mining agreement. Subsequent rallies were held at Colombo, and in Eppawala through 1998 and 1999. The philosophy of the movement is non-violent protest. The crowd burnt effigies of the 'Company' and the Sri Lankan President. The President was dubbed "a millionaire plotting to destroy the lands of the poor." Before filing the court case, religious ceremonies and dharna were held to strengthen the resistance. Networks including an American support group were established to create public opinion.

    People rejoiced when the courts of Sri Lanka upheld their fundamental rights petition quoting a dictum "that the rulers appointed should protect the wealth of the country". The government was forced to shelve the agreement. However, it could be re-enacted as the Sri Lankan government steps up its globalisation drive.

    The last story comes from Bhopal. Hamidabi's relatives fell like flies one by one. Her tale is like a relentless Greek tragedy. Her daughter was running for her life when she fell unconscious with her two-month-old baby in her arms. Hamida discovered her daughter and son-in-law unconscious in hospital. Her grandchild was wrapped in a wet cloth. She discovered that the baby was still alive. Even as she cleaned and dressed the child, it vomited green liquid. Her grandchild died soon after. The horror continues as the survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy live on, diseased and disabled, weak and unemployed. It was this which made her and thousands of others resolve to fight for their rights to give some comfort to the survivors. Her words bring the details vividly back, even though 18 years have passed since the Bhopal disaster hit her family.

    As the Asian Social Forum Voices of Victims sessions drew to a close, we would like to believe that the voices of victims of discrimination, oppression, hate, conflict and exclusion will not be silenced. We would like to believe that the few testimonies that we heard over those four days will reverberate, along with the voices of millions who suffer in different parts of the globe. And that someday somewhere the world will respond.

    Source: InfoChange News & Features, January 2003

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