By Jatindra Dash and Ankush Arora
BHUBANESWAR/NEW DELHI, India, Sept 20 Schools,
businesses and government offices were shut in many parts of
India on Thursday as protesters blocked roads and trains as part
of a one-day nationwide strike against sweeping economic reforms
announced by the government last week.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and
smaller parties from both the political left and right called
the strike to protest against a 14 percent increase in heavily
subsidised diesel prices, and a government decision that opens
the door to foreign supermarket chains investing in India.
The measures, part of a package of economic reforms aimed at
boosting a sharply slowing economy, have triggered a political
firestorm. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's biggest ally, the
Trinamool Congress party, said it would pull out of the
coalition on Friday unless the reforms were reversed, raising
the risk of an early election.
The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) urged Singh not
to yield to the pressure, saying the reforms, long demanded by
Indian business leaders, were crucial for economic growth.
"Good economics seldom makes for good politics," it said.
The CII said the one-day strike had cost the economy $2.3
billion in lost production and trade.
It did not say how it had arrived at the figure, but
hundreds of thousands of owners of mom-and-pop "kirana" stores,
who fear the retail reform will drive them out of business, were
reported to have shut for the day in protest. Bigger companies
gave staff the day off or allowed them to work from home.
A usually bustling Bangalore, India's IT and outsourcing
hub, wore a deserted look as offices and shops closed down and
public transport came to a halt. But in Mumbai, the country's
financial capital, banks and offices were open as usual.
Across the country, morning commuters were left stranded at
train stations and bus stops as protesters squatted on railway
tracks and laid siege to bus depots. Supporters of the BJP and
other opposition parties also burned effigies of Singh and
blocked roads with burning tyres.
"If we don't protest now, the central government will
eliminate the poor and middle-class families," said Santi Barik
as she protested in Bhubaneswar, capital of the eastern state of
Government offices, businesses, schools and banks in
Bhubaneswar were shut, and similar shutdowns were reported in
other cities, including Hyderabad, the IT hub that is home to
offices of Microsoft Corp and Google Inc.
BULLOCK CARTS AND BUFFALOES
In Bangalore, most of the 3,500 staff employed by Intel Corp
and 10,000 staff at Cisco Systems Inc were
asked to work from home, company spokesmen said. Infosys Ltd
and Wipro Ltd gave workers the day off.
On the outskirts of Kolkata, capital of West Bengal,
protesters smashed car windows and damaged buses as
panic-stricken commuters fled their vehicles, police said. In
Bihar state, protesters marched through the streets of the
capital, Patna, sitting on buffaloes.
"We will be left with nothing but bullock carts and
buffaloes to move around in towns due to frequent hikes in
fuel," said protester Punam Devi.
The Congress party-ruled coalition, which has a record of
buckling under pressure, partially rolled backed a petrol price
increase this year after facing a similar strike.
Some Congress officials have hinted that the 5 rupee per
litre diesel price increase could be cut, and a new limit on
subsidised cooking gas cylinders may also be raised.
But the Congress party has held firm against calls for the
retail reform to be scrapped, despite the threat by Trinamool
Congress to withdraw its ministers on Friday - which would leave
Singh with a minority government.
Singh is counting on support from two regional parties to
prop up his shaky coalition in parliament. But the leader of one
of the parties, Mulayam Singh, was among protesters marching in
New Delhi on Thursday, underscoring the difficulties Singh will
face in pushing forward with his economic reforms.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram played down suggestions of
an early election.
"We have enough friends today. We had enough friends
yesterday. So I don't see any reason why you should doubt our
stability," he said.
The BJP is seeking to exploit anger against the diesel
increase and retail reforms ahead of a series of state elections
later this year and national elections due by 2014.
Mom-and-pop grocery shop owners are an important
constituency for the BJP. Tiny family-owned kiranas are
ubiquitous, dotting densely packed neighbourhoods across India.
Some of them are walk-in stores but many owners operate out of
garages or hole-in-the-wall stalls.