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WSF CARNIVAL GOES INTO MOTION

Shahzad Khan, a young caretaker at the KMC Sports Complex grounds, where the World Social Forum is going to be held from Mar. 24-29 in this southern port city of Karachi, Pakistan, is perplexed by the sudden flurry of activity. Masons, carpenters, painters, gardeners, everyone are trying to give the place last-minute touches in a bid to hide the area's rundown and decrepit look.

(from Zofeen T Ebrahim, IPS/TerraViva)

In the grounds, which were once green parches, tents and marquees of all sizes have been put up, and chairs arranged. There seems to be no stopping now.

"It all started about a week back. I don't know what's happening, but I've heard that lots of foreigners are coming and there is going to be a big party and the place needs to look good for them," Khan says simply.

He's happy about the way things are beginning to take shape. The iron grill that forms part of the boundary wall has been repaired and painted a bright green and yellow, and the main is being built anew. Even the amphitheatre where the opening, closing and main plenaries will be held is getting a facelift.

Oblivious to the din of work or even the acrid smoke coming from garbage pile, five teenage boys are busy playing cricket, a favourite Pakistani sport, inside one of the back gates of the sports complex. They have no clue what is happening. "Perhaps it is some mela (fair/carnival)," they say by way of explanation.

Though not totally wrong, but they have not bothered to find out more about the 'mela' or even noticed the red banners announcing the World Social Forum - where organisers say 10,000 to 15,000 participants are expected to come -- all along the green belt of the Kashmir Road.

To 24-year old Robin Abriel, on the other hand, who came all the way from Switzerland, the WSF is an altogether a different ball game (pun intended).

For the moment, he is helping with the logistics. "I'm not used to so much chaos. Sometimes I lose my patience and we often have our mood swings and flare-ups, more so now as the countdown has begun and we hardly get any sleep, but even in this there are lessons to be learnt."

He had earlier volunteered at the Porto Alegre WSF in 2005 and in 2004 for the European Social Forum and the Barcelona Mediterranean Forum. But even when he does get a few winks, he says: "I only dream of the toilets, the drinking water arrangements, the garbage disposal and the campsite set-up.

However, he's confident everything will take shape on the day the WSF opens. "I've learnt that Pakistanis work at the eleventh hour, and when they do, they really do." In the three weeks that he has been here, he's only gone from the WSF secretariat to the venue and back. "No, I have not seen the beach or even the usual tourist spots. There has been no time." But he intends going around once this is over.

Opening up a layout of the venue, Abriel takes me down a virtual trip, explaining how they've divided the site into five sections to accommodate a hundred or so stalls for both food and exhibits, the registration area, the media centre and the administration block for the WSF secretariat, areas earmarked for sessions, cultural events, film showings etc, the youth camp (with a capacity to accommodate 500) and the volunteer camps (with a capacity of 150), the 100 or so toilet stalls, showers for people camping ,water reservoirs, fountains of filtered drinking water, the garbage bins, the resting areas with big screens.

The task is immense and it all seems too good on paper and a very well thought-out plan.

With most of Karachi roads dug up, specially those leading to the People's Stadium where the opening and closing are being held, the City District Government of Karachi has taken it upon itself to manage the traffic as well as well as provide some shuttle services to and fro for the two camps located in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal. Security measures are also in the hands of the city government. About 10 to 20 minutes' drive away from venue, the one for women will have provision for 1,200 and that for men, about 3,500.

But Abriel is not the only one who is getting sleepless nights. Tazeen Javed, the coordinator, has not eaten well or slept fitfully "in over a month". Her family life is non-existent, "but in the process I've acquired another one", she says cheerfully. Asked if she were to do this all over again, she says without even a second's pause, "I'd walk this trail all over again. Being part of something so big, like the WSF, has been an amazing experience despite all the glitches and the frustrations."

She says the response from the young students has really made this all a very refreshing encounter. "Their enthusiasm is infectious, I must say. Our youth don't get to do this kind of work often, so they are very eager. They come with fresh ideas, have oodles of energy and are definitely not jaded or cynical." A driving force behind mobilising the youth volunteers, Javed says the gender balance is equal: "Most say they want to interact with foreigners and were as concerned about the delay in visas as we were stressed."

For Anoushe Alam, a young business entrepreneur and a peace activist coordinating the cultural events, this is exactly her cup of tea.

"I'd earlier volunteered for the European Social Forum. The experience was very different. But of course you cannot compare that event with the one here, with systems not in place and frustrations at every step. But the end result is going to be the same. I'd volunteer all over again for this is far more challenging, yet stimulating, than the 'too-organised' events that take place in the developed world" she says, adding, "I like to think positive and convert it into reality."

 

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