Flattening the World?

Community Organizing Ideas and Issues International Labor Organizing WalMart

Delhi     Flying from Newark to Delhi between Saturday night and Sunday night in the way the globe and the sun turns, I plowed through The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist. This had been a gift from my son for my birthday, so despite the fact that I can’t really abide Friedman’s column, I was totally committed to reading the book.

It is hard to believe that the best way to approach globalization is with a huge gee whiz!, but this strategy seems to be Friedman’s and by all accounts it is working very well for him. It’s not hard to see why. Some of the stories are excellent, interesting, and informative. Friedman’s is a world of mountain climbers on the frontier. There are only passing notes to consequences and the losers. He’s a lucky American guy traveling the world and liking it by god. The book is an enjoyable read even while making you angry at the shallowness of it all. It is easy to get caught up in gee whiz. It is hard not to note the technological changes that are swirling around us and changing our world. It is hard not to believe with Friedman the American conceit, that we are special, living in the best possible and most exciting time, and we have to get on about it — hoping we haven’t fallen too far behind in the race.

One of his more obnoxious quirks was to ask the big whoops he interviewed around the world (often with his family in tow, which must be a gee whiz thing for sure!), when “they noticed the world was flat.” People being polite, he collected a lot of answers.

I’m careful though not to throw too many stones. I’m here in Delhi traveling 24 hours to get here over 2 days, working on the ground for 50 hours, and then flying back 12 hours on the clock (capturing my life back) to land in New Orleans. I had been here a couple of months ago for meetings in four cities to gauge the interest in creating a campaign around the proposed modification of foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail which was being widely promoted by Wal-Mart, Tesco, Carrefour, and other big box operators around the world. I was here now to interview staff and sort out the actual work plans to get the campaign in high gear. Across our languages (Hindi, Tamil, and English) we met in English and in spite of myself I was stressed that my Blackberry was not picking up messages, when it had always been able to do so in Delhi in the past.

Sitting in the lobby waiting for 7:30 AM to allow a cup of coffee and reading the Hindustan Times and the Times of India, a woman came right up to me and started talking. I looked at her and in fact her face was clearly familiar, though her name was nowhere that I could find it. This was a French filmmaker based in New York who I had originally met at a conference on organizing around water rights and against water privatization that I attended in Kyoto several years ago. She had showed up with a crew in time to film us beat Mayor Nagin about 3 – 4 years ago and win a majority of the votes of the New Orleans Sewer and Water board to block privatization of water in the city. I had forgotten about this piece of the puzzle, though I quickly remembered that she was also filming water fights in India as part of her film, and this had obviously brought her here.

Irena Salina had been here a month I found over breakfast. Her film was finally limping towards the finish line on its last dollars and rupees. She and her partner were going into editing for four months in 2006, and would finally wrench a film from all of the travel and footage.

She was coming from Rajistan where she had been working and filming water harvesting in the rural areas. She was quite enthusiastic over rain water harvesting and decentralized water management. There was someone she wanted me to meet. She usually stayed at the Gandhi Peace Foundation for 400 rupees, but it was filled up and she was the last of her party to leave the cab and had no place to stay. She asked the cab driver what might be nearby, and he took her to this old, worn, and reasonable Hotel Marina in Connaught Circus. Ashutosh Saxena had gotten me a reservation here when other hotels were not available.

The coffee shop was famous. At one table — the waiters will tell you which one — Gandhi’s assassin and co-conspirators had met one last time to discuss the plan. He then got up from the table and walked to where Gandhi was and killed him.

There are no internet connections in this hotel anywhere. Cell phones do not really work. The remote is useless for the TV and the TV works only from time to time.

Who knows whether the world is flat, but it is certainly filled with coincidences.

November 21, 2005

NY based french water rights filmmaker, Irena Salina, in Delhi