DELHI -- This is the first communication in the series of 'Letters from India', a fortnightly brief written by the Finnish activists staying in India as part of the Lokayan - Kepa exchange programme. In the first phase they will run regularly until the end of April for the benefit of people interested in the activity in both countries.
Lokayan is a think tank and network node with the office in Delhi and Kepa is the umbrella organisation of two hundred Finnish NGOs involved in development and solidarity activities. Having exchanged ideas since 1989, the two organisations formalised a relation and decided on a three year co-operation programme in September 1998 when the convenor of the Global Responsibility Forum - Lokayan . The main theme of the cooperation is democratising the North-South relations. This issue is approached by the programme to exchange some four senior activists every year. In 1998 one representative of Indian movements, Dr. Vasanthi Raman, went to Finland. The first Finnish activist, Mr. Marko Ulvila, arrived in India in the beginning of January this year.
The 'Letters from India' is divided into three sections. A theme discussion covers an issue arising usually out of Lokayan's activities. Some of the potential themes are listed in my work plan, which is the theme section of this first 'Letter'. Secondly there are short highlights from events during the two week period. Lastly personal reflections on issues of importance and human interest. In this first 'Letter' also a note of personal introduction is provided.
Next issue in the beginning of February will discuss the land struggles in the state of Bihar where I will spend next week.
The question that has occupied my mind for several years now is how can we find ways to challenge collectively the overwhelming forces driving humanity towards greater inequality and further environmental degradation. Although during the post-war period there has been remarkable improvements in the well being of the people in most parts of the world, these achievements are overshadowed by the fact that the number of people living in absolute poverty has increased, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened and vast and irreversible damage has been done to the environment. If these trend are let to continue humanity will face serious crises in the future.
This joint question of poverty and environment has been a continuing theme in the whole of my adult life. I have been addressing it primarily as an activist in several citizens' organisations such as Coalition for Environment and Development and Friends of the Earth Finland. Also in my studies at the University of Tampere I have selected disciplines and themes that have enabled me to learn more about the questions. They include sociology, environmental policy, peace research and development studies.
During the past years my main engagement in the activist side has circled around the theme of globalisation and corporate power. As a case in point I have highlighted the negative impacts of the Finland's largest forest company UPM-Kymmene's investment in paper production in Indonesia based on clear-cutting rainforests in areas traditionally owned by local communities.
In the academic side I am pursuing post-graduate studies in a collaborative project studying non-governmental organisations in Nepal and Bangladesh. My work is based at the University of Tampere and I work closely with fellow researchers at the Tribhuvan University in Nepal and Dhaka University in Bangladesh.
My interest in participating in the Lokayan - Kepa cooperation as an exchange activists rose from the deep impact interaction with Lokayan activists has had on my friends and senior colleagues at the Finnish movements. This interest was further strengthened by the research engagement in the South-Asian region. My objective is to gain insights into the issues and methods of Lokayan and to establish contacts and relations that will bring forward the common struggle for a more just World.
An important part of my life is sharing it with my beloved companion Jarna who is with me also here in India.
Theme: My work plan
As agreed with Lokayan and Kepa, I will be working with Lokayan in January and February and during the first two weeks of April. Based on the discussions and documentation the following work plan has been approved by the Lokayan convenor.
Learning about Lokayan
What & Why One of the main reasons for the Lokayan - Kepa co-operation is the unique nature of Lokayan as a think tank and a node of movement networks in India. The inputs from Lokayan have been important to the Finnish solidarity movement during the past decade, and one of the central ideas of the co-operation is to expand this knowledge to wider circles in Finland.
How I will get acquainted with the work of Lokayan by talking with the staff, activists and members and by taking part in the activities. As the main output I will write bi-weekly 'Letters from India' in English to be circulated among the members of the Kepa's India Group and staff and among Lokayan circles in India. The letters will consist of one main theme and short presentations of interesting events and issues. The themes would include: - Dalit struggles - Trasport issues - Globalisation (Global Responsibility Forum) - (Anti-) Communalism - Natural resources - Health - Et c.
Democratising the North-South Relations
What and Why Besides the exchange programme, the North-South project implemented with the Centre for the study of Developing Societies (CSDS) is a major undertaking in Kepa's India programme. For a smooth progress some more man-power is needed especially to bring in the Northern perspectives.
The seminar held in Delhi on 10 - 12 December produced a good number of material which needs to be processed. Also a number or articles has arrived that are to be reviewed and edited. I will lend a hand in both operations as requested by the project co-ordinator and staff. Moreover, I will help preparing a session on the theme in Nepal to be held in March 1999.
Lokayan - Kepa Co-operation
What and Why The Lokayan - Kepa Co-operation was for years 1998-2000 was formalised in September 1998 and the exchange programme has begun. For the succesfull implementation of the agreed activities and for the planning of new ones constant communication between the organisations is needed. As a member of the India Group and with several year of Kepa experience I can provide some necessary insights of the Finnish end.
How On substantial issues and practical arrangements I will help by communicating with Kepa's office and the India Group. If new people from India will leave for Finland during my stay I will play a role in the preparatory work. As the first Finnish exchange activist to India I am naturally involved in arranging the logistics in Delhi. Identifying new European contacts for Lokayan is also on my agenda. If needed, I can also help in preparing decisions regarding job descriptions of the new activists, establishing e-mail connection etc.
Corporate power, WTO and globalisation
What and why Both Lokayan and Kepa have a long tradition of critical examination of the activities of multinational corporations. This is an integral part of the co-operation programme.
How The next meeting of the Peoples Global Action against Free Trade and WTO (PGA) is the be held in Bangalore in the beginning of April. I will participate in the gathering and report from the event to Lokayan and Kepa, and to other interested groups.
Highlights from the fortnight
On the day of my arrival to Delhi I visited a sit-in demonstration (dharna) supporting the struggle of a group of vegetable vendors. During the week I made a half day visit to a studio of an new Internet radio station. Later I had the opportunity to discuss with Mr. Arun Kumar his proposal for political reform which he later on presented at a CSDS-Lokniti forum. Lastly I participated in a meeting called by Lokayan's working group on transport. Summary presentations of the events are below.
DHARNA ON VEGETABLE VENDORS' PLIGHT
On my first day in Delhi I attended briefly a sit-in demonstration (dharna) in front of the office of the Lieutant-Governor of Delhi. Some 30 people had been demonstrating for ten days on the street-side throughout day and night against the coercive closing down of an informal vegetable marked at Pachim Vihar, West Delhi. The vendors together with a number of activists from peoples' organisations lead by Ms. Nirmala Sharma of Jagriti Mahila Samiti were demanding a reversal of the eviction decision. Also member organisations of the National Alliance of People's Movements, including Lokayan, took part in the action. The issue was successfully settled on 8 January after an intervention by the union Minister for Urban Affairs. He promised a recognised market place for the vendors and allowed them meanwhile to continue the trade at the old site. At the dharna a number of meetings and other events took place. Among them, Lokayan activist Ratti and the convenor of NAPM/North India Vimal Bhai announced their engagement.
A WEB RADIO IN MAKING
A veteran BBC journalist and a friend of Lokayan, Mr. Raman Nanda, has started a radio station in the Internet to provide an Indian perspective to local and World events. The site will be launched on January 26 with Hindi and English news broadcasts every day. Already now there are daily news at 20.00 hours. In the future the site will also have a thirty minute programme on issues emerging from people's organisations and movements. Lokayan might play a role in identifying events and issues and even organising barefoot journalists to produce material for web-casting. Visit the site at www.media-arc.com.
ARUN KUMAR'S REFORM PROPOSAL
A senior social and political activist Mr. Arun Kumar, founder convenor of Lokayan's Rajashtan Chapter, gave a presentation at Lokniti - a forum of research and dialogue on democracy - on a political and administrative reform. The point of departure of the proposal is the observation that there is a lack of dialogue between the elite and the people, and this as such causes injustice (anyay). The key element of the reform would be to make the heads of local and regional administration elected rather than appointed by the central government. Secondly there would be integration of vernacular wisdom and Indian tradition into the elected bodies at all administrative levels from village to Union.
TRANSPORT POLICY STATEMENT
On January 11 Lokayan's working group on People's Transport Policy (Jan Parivahan Panchayat) issued a statement regarding national transport policy. The prime minister A.B. Vijpayee had announced that the government would make an integrated transport policy and that the Planning Commission would be responsible for drafting it. As a response Lokayan issued a memorandum highlighting the fact that 90 per cent of India's population move by non-motorised transport and this should be considered seriously by the government. Facilities for pedestrians, cyclists, rickshaws, animal driven carts and boats should be a high priority. These pollution-free modes of transport save also foreign currency and scarce oil resources.
LOW-KEY STYLE OF LOKAYAN
The first observations about Lokayan I like to share is the working method which does not push the Lokayan banner to the front but creates separate groups for each of the major issues the organisation is working on. This way new people can be conveniently gathered to exchange ideas and to work together. By giving each group an identity of its own nobody needs to give up organisational identities or to identify with a reputed institution like Lokayan. An inevitable outcome of the approach is that there is not so much visibility for Lokayan but this goes well with the objectives and style of the organisation.
When planning my trip to Delhi from Bangladesh where I had spent December for my research work I decided to travel via Calcutta to see the world-famous city and to spend less time in a fuel hoarding aeroplane. The prospects were not overwhelming. The Lonely Planet travel guide describes Calcutta as "an ugly and desperate place that to many people sums up the worst of India" and the leading Finnish authors on India, Tuominen and Zenger, write that "the many run-down houses add to the chaotic and end-of-the-World image". To my surprise, the 26 hour visit to the city gave just an opposite impression. I found the standard sized buildings and the huge Ambassador car fleet pleasing to the eye, and moving around by foot, boat, metro and taxi proved most convenient. Of course there were traffic jams and the air was thick of smoke, but that is the case in all Asian mega-cities I have visited. Perhaps my impressions have something to do with spending time in the other capital of Bengal, Dhaka. From that perspective Calcutta appears affluent, modern and well organised. Also my route in Calcutta from Airport to BBD Bagh to Howrah railway station had left some of the more destitute places out of my sight. However, I do wonder what is it that reproduces all those negative accounts of a remarkable city like Calcutta.