250 million strong India strike!

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Workers demonstrate during the general strike. Over 250 million people took part in the action

OVER 250 million workers staged a day-long general strike in India last Wednesday, and demonstrated their opposition to the government of Narendra Modi.

Banking and other businesses across India were hit as millions of workers went on strike protesting against the Hindu nationalist government’s economic policies, especially the planned sale of several state-owned companies including Air India.

The widespread action was in opposition to what unions called the ‘anti-worker and anti-people policies’ of right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Protesters marched on the streets of New Delhi and several state capitals in response to the strike call given by 10 workers unions.

They highlighted the recent privatisation of public firms and natural resources and demanded a raise in the minimum wage and pensions.

Farmers and students joined some of the protests called by ten trade unions who claim 250 million members between them.

Bus and train services and state-owned banks bore the brunt of the national strike action that was staged in defiance of government warnings of ‘consequences’ for anyone who took part. Some workers at state oil and coal firms joined the strike.

Rail and road traffic was also disrupted in Assam, West Bengal and Kerala states, where workers held street protests and blocked railroads, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

West Bengal was the worst hit, with police firing live rounds in the air to break up protesters who set fire to police vehicles and threw rocks at security forces in Malda district, north of the capital Kolkata, a senior police officer told the press.

They also fired tear gas and baton-charged other protests in the eastern state, where many roads and railway lines were blocked. Police said more than 150 arrests were made.

The eastern states of Bihar and Odisha, Maharashtra in the west, Haryana in the north and Kerala and Karnataka in the south were also hit by the action.

Amarjeet Kaur, a trade union leader, said workers were opposed to the proposed sale of natural resources and state assets.

‘The working class is on roads today,’ she said, adding that 90-100% of the workers had joined the strike in the defence of coal, petroleum, income-tax and service sectors in 15 to 16 Indian states.

Those at rallies also chanted slogans against the government’s new nationality law that opponents say is anti-Muslim and has sparked widespread demonstrations. More than 25 people have been killed in the protests since December 11.

Growing unrest in universities has also added to social tensions.

‘The attitude of the government is that of contempt toward labour,’ said the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, one of the groups organising Wednesday’s 24-hour strike.

Opposition parties have backed the strikers. Rahul Gandhi, former leader of the main opposition Congress party said the government had ‘created catastrophic unemployment’ in a Twitter message praising the action.

The unions said that hundreds of thousands of workers will lose jobs if the government went ahead with the sale of Air India, Bharat Petroleum Corporation, the Shipping Corporation of India and the Container Corporation of India.

The government says it plans to sell the companies because they had been losing money for years.

It also wants to bolster revenues as it prepares to unveil the federal budget on February 1 for the financial year 2020-21. The federal government warned the workers that they wouldn’t receive salaries for Wednesday if they went on strike.

The government projected a 5% economic growth in the current fiscal year, April 2019 to March this year, sharply down from last year’s 6.8% with the manufacturing, cement and power sectors faring poorly. Also, the sale of cars and other vehicles dipped by nearly 13% in mid-2019.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government recently recapitalised the banks and offered tax incentives for domestic companies. But these steps have so far not increased the rate of investment, according to data released by the government’s National Statistical Office.

In May last year, government data had shown that joblessness in the country was 6.1% of the total labour force during 2017-18, the highest in 45 years.

The national action was organised by 10 trade unions. The manufacturing sector is protesting against the privatisations of public companies and policies that do not support employment. In 2020 India will grow ‘only 5%’. Among the demands were: minimum wage, pension reform, labour reform.

‘The largest strike in the world began this morning in India: 10 trade unions today announced a national “Bharat Bandh” day of unrest. About 250 million workers came out to protest against and oppose the current economic and social policies of Narendra Modi’s government, accused of being overly focused on privatisation and not very attentive to either employment or growth.

The transport sector, the banking sector and the coal industry were striking in force. There were also approximately 220 billion bank transactions at risk, including those in current and cash accounts. According to the unions, at least 500 thousand employees of the banks decided to strike, along with another 600 thousand employees in coal mining.

Labour unions complain of central government indifference, which would have ignored their ‘12-point charter’. The demands from the service sector and the production sector include a minimum monthly wage at 21 thousand rupees (262 euros); job creation; the withdrawal of contractual policies of the workforce;  discussions at various levels on labour reform; no to the privatisation of public sector industries and finally a universal pension system.

India is in a critical moment given the slowdown in economic development, with stagnation in the employment sector and widespread unemployment in all sections of the population – which reached 7.7% in December. According to the latest forecasts released yesterday, growth should reach 5% in the current fiscal year – the lowest level in 11 years.

For the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, one of the striking organisations, ‘The government has failed to tackle the economic crisis. At the same time, it is committed to privatising and selling public sector properties, natural resources and other national assets.

‘All this detracts from the national interest and the country’s development.’

C.H. Venkatachalam, secretary general of the All India Bank Employees’ Association, added: ‘Modi’s government policies have led to severe economic contraction, and created debt for banks.

‘The government must take the necessary actions to encourage consumer demand by offering incentives to workers.’