New Delhi/Mumbai, Feb 20: India’s financial sector was crippled and transport hit as large parts of the country ground to a halt Wednesday in response to trade unions calling a two-day strike demanding measures to check inflation, ensure jobs and enforce labour laws.
Day one of the nationwide protest saw trains stopped in places such as Bihar and roads blocked elsewhere but it was all mostly peaceful, with the exception of Noida in Uttar Pradesh, close to the national capital, where mobs attacked factories and set vehicles afire.
In Ambala, a Haryana Roadways employee was killed accidentally when he came under the wheels of a bus as authorities tried to forcibly ply services.
Central trade unions said the strike drew “overwhelming response” and called upon the government to take note of the support extended by people.
The banking sector was the worst-hit in the strike called by 11 major trade unions including the ruling Congress’ Indian Trade Union Congress.
The charter of demands of the unions include concrete measures for containing inflation, steps for employment generation, universal social security and making the minimum wage Rs.10,000 per month along with daily allowance.
The protest, ahead of with the budget session of parliament that is likely to see the Manmohan Singh government cornered on a range of issues, found wide resonance.
Around one million bankers struck work, affecting the clearance of around four million cheques valued around Rs.250 billion (Rs.25,000 crore), said C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA).
In the country’s financial capital Mumbai, all banks, insurance companies and commercial institutions remained shut, organisers said.
“The banking and financial sector is 100 percent closed not only in Mumbai and Maharashtra but all over the country,” AIBEA vice president Vishwas Utagi told IANS.
Attempts were made to halt buses in Mumbai and trains in the western suburbs but police foiled most of these efforts.
Commuters had a tough time in the national capital with cabs and autos off the roads, leaving them with no option but to either miss work or pack into metro trains and buses. And that was how it was in many parts of the country.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked the Election Commission to ban political parties that called shutdowns.
“It is my humble request to the Election Commission… whichever party calls a ‘bandh’ (shutdown), let them be banned,” she said, evoking criticism from opposition and unions.
Flight services were normal in West Bengal and trains plied despite minor disruptions but buses, taxis and auto rickshaws largely kept off the roads.
The shutdown was pretty much total in Kerala, where the Left is not in power but has significant influence, and in Left-ruled Tripura.
“The price rise is unbearable. There has to be a way out,” said Kerala’s Agricultural Minister K.P. Mohanan, who belongs to the ruling Congress party.
Life was disrupted elsewhere too. In India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, over 10,000 government-run buses stayed off the roads leaving commuters stranded.
Coal production and transportation were impacted in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The strike also hit Vishakapatnam Steel Plant in Andhra Pradesh.
In tech hub Bangalore, software majors such as Infosys and Wipro worked normally but state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Bharat Electronics Ltd, Bharat Earth Movers Ltd, Indian Telephones Industries and Hindustan Machine Tools Ltd remained shut. Normal life remained unaffected in most Karnataka towns.
In Bihar, the government postponed the Class 12 examination scheduled for Feb 20 and 21 to the first week of March.
According to industry body Assocham, which Tuesday urged the unions to withdraw the strike call, the economy would lose Rs.15,000-20,000 crore due to the disruption.
Maruti Suzuki plants in Gurgaon could be shut Thursday as the workers decided to join the strike.