Last week saw 40,000 people come together to demonstrate and organise resistance at the Indian Social Forum (ISF) in Delhi, India.
The ISF brought together hundreds of social movements - trade unions, left groups, students, women’s groups, organisations of the Dalits (untouchables), and many tribal and rural agricultural workers.
Socialist Worker spoke to some of those at the forum about the struggles they are involved in and the impact of the forum.
Ashish Awasthi is a socialist and part of a student and youth group that works among unorganised labourers in Lucknow, a city in the north of India. He said, “Our group are students who have decided to organise with the working class. We work with rickshaw workers, construction workers and zardozi (skilled embroidery) workers.”
He came to the ISF with ten of these workers. He said, “For them, it is the first time that they have been to Delhi. It is a chance to meet with other groups and trade unionists and discuss tactics.”
Ashish is outraged at the idea that India is economically booming. “We are dying of hunger,” he told Socialist Worker. “Agricultural reforms from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Indian government have given agriculture to the big companies.
“Many thousands of small farmers have died as a result. While rural labourers are fighting for a minimum wage of 60 rupees (72p) a day, they currently get just 10 rupees (12p) a day.
“People who are forced off the land by the big companies come to cities like Delhi where they work in unorganised sectors for very little money - not enough to live on.
“I believe that industrial workers should lead a struggle for better pay, but they need to tie up with agricultural and unorganised workers.”
He said that his group is having an impact in Lucknow. “Recently there was a workers’ strike and we organised for 500 rickshaw workers and 400 to 500 construction workers to come out into the streets to march. Almost half of all rickshaw workers joined in the strike - it was a historic day.”
Sunayana, a student from Delhi University, told Socialist Worker that many students were attending the forum. She said, “I think that students who wouldn’t normally be interested are getting a chance to listen to left perspectives.
“There are many people here from the villages so it is a good place to interact and develop solidarity.”
“I went to a meeting on Latin America and neoliberal policies which also looked at why capitalist booms cannot last - it was a very clear and useful meeting.”
She thinks that there are many issues that the left needs to address. “You look at India 20 years ago and India today and the problems are the same - some of them are even worse.
“I am involved with the right to work campaign. I have been to some of the villages where people are dying. They face repression from landlords and the police.
“There are more students getting involved - and we are trying to make a real difference in our own city as well as talking about wider ideas.”
Most of those at the forum were from India, but a small number travelled from other parts of South Asia or other parts of the world. Hundreds who tried to get to the forum from neighbouring Pakistan were refused visas. Ayub Qureshi is one of about 60 delegates from Pakistan who made it to the ISF.
He is the information officer for the Pakistan Trade Union Federation and an activist with the Pakistan/India People’s Forum. He told Socialist Worker that he had received a warm welcome from activists in India: “People are very friendly and there is a very strong feeling that there should be more interaction between people in both countries.
“My group is working to solve problems between India and Pakistan through dialogue not war. We are arguing to open more of the border.
“There is much repression against workers in Pakistan. Trade unions are not as effective as they should be, though in the last few years there have been many struggles against privatisation.
“In September, workers at General Tyres in Karachi went on strike and won an important wage rise.”
At the ISF there was much debate about the challenges facing the left. In the 2004 elections the right wing BJP was kicked out of government by a coalition that said it would improve the lives of millions.
Two years later, its neoliberal policies are continuing to create misery for the majority. Nevertheless, the defeat of the BJP has given the left a breathing space in which it can rebuild its base among the workers and the poor.
The ISF showed that there is feeling among many that now is a time for action. Sunayana says, “If you go to the villages you can see radical resistance from the people, telling politicians that they need to watch out.”