India rocked by strike over fuel prices

July 5, 2010
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, NEW DELHI, Jul 5 – A strike called by opposition parties over fuel price rises disrupted life across India on Monday, shutting schools and businesses and causing transport mayhem in major cities.

Flights were grounded in commercial airline hubs such as Mumbai and Kolkata, train services were hit by protesters blocking the tracks, and buses and taxis stayed off the roads.

Police were out in force to prevent any unrest during the 12-hour strike called by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and leftist parties in a show of strength against the Congress-led government\’s reform programme.

The response to the strike call was mixed across the country, with the greatest impact felt in states with non-Congress administrations, like West Bengal, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Bihar.

In New Delhi, the government said it would not be bullied into reneging on reform promises, and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee insisted there was "no question" of rolling back on the fuel price hikes.

The government scrapped petrol subsidies last month and announced an across-the-board rise in the price of other fuels as a key part of its strategy to rein in a yawning fiscal deficit.

The inflationary knock-on effect of the increases is an issue that India\’s fractured opposition can unite over, given simmering popular concern over steep rises in the cost of living.

The strike was widely observed in India\’s financial capital, Mumbai, where police rounded up 1,000 "trouble-makers" on Sunday in a pre-emptive move to prevent any large-scale unrest.

Flights to and from Mumbai airport were severely disrupted, with domestic airlines cancelling 45 departures and 39 arrivals.

The city\’s taxis were mostly off the streets, while most schools, colleges and businesses closed down, with some shopkeepers voicing concerns that the right-wing Shiv Sena party would use violence to enforce the strike call.

There were clashes in several cities, with police charging with batons and using water cannon to disperse crowds.

The Mumbai police\’s rapid reaction force was on alert and some 40,000 officers were on the streets, city police commissioner Sanjeev Dayal said.

"We have taken all security measures to ensure no untoward incident takes place," Dyal said. "Anyone who takes the law into their hands and attempts to paralyse the city shall be dealt with strictly."

In Kolkata, the capital of the Marxist-controlled state of West Bengal, public transport was at a standstill and most flights from the main airport were cancelled.

Demonstrators took to the streets and held sit-down protests to block some of the city\’s key intersections, but there were no reports of any violence.

The strike virtually shut down the software sector in India\’s IT showcase city Bangalore — the capital of BJP-ruled Karnataka state — where hundreds of software firms, including giants like Infosys and Wipro, told employees to stay at home.

"As a precaution, we have declared a holiday for our staff today," said Infosys chief executive S. Gopalakrishnan.

In the northern city of Lucknow, police reported incidents of protesters stoning public buses to keep them off the streets and senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley was detained for illegal assembly.

Prior to being taken into custody, Jaitley told reporters the strike was an "unprecedented success."

"This protest has been widely supported by the average common man because he is really the target of the government\’s policies," he said.

In the Bihar state capital Patna, protesters disrupted train services and blocked the main state highway with sit-down demonstrations.

The Indian capital, which is controlled by a Congress administration, was relatively normal, but with a heavy police presence on the streets.

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