Incendiary India: petrol strike leaves Bangalore becalmed
I did something on Thursday that I never thought I would get a chance to do: I walked in the middle of MG Road, one of Bangalore’s busiest thoroughfares, and survived. This gesture normally would be suicidal, but today’s a different kind of day in Bangalore. An eerie quiet descended on parts of India’s call centre and tech outsourcing capital as a nationwide strike to protest petrol price rises shut down businesses and public transportation.
I rolled into town from New York City early Thursday morning, and went for a walk to find out how the “Bharat Bandh,” or “India Closed” (more or less), declared by India’s top opposition party, the BJP, and some other, smaller parties, was affecting the city. The sun was out, the humidity rising; it was a delightful day in the so-called garden city of India, but it looked and felt like a exaggerated Sunday, with men hanging out by their local paanwallahs, grabbing an idle smoke and noshing on fried goodies. Security guards drooped in plastic chairs in front of stores and offices, looking even more bored than usual. There were so few cars and motorcycles on the road that you could hear yourself think, and there was so little exhaust that the air nearly felt healthy. In other words: the strike was on.
To anyone who has never visited this city, this scene doesn’t sound all that novel. But Bangalore on a normal day is a near constant grind of traffic. Endless buses, motorbikes, autorickshaws, cars, and trucks, trucks and more trucks. To cross the street without assistance, particularly for a foreigner, merits the award of some kind of medal of honor. It is normal for someone unaccustomed to the density of traffic in the heart of this city to wait 15 minutes before crossing the street — and that’s when the light is on your side.
Nazia Shaheen, the receptionist at my hotel, said that the city buses that normally ferry drivers for the hotel to work have stopped running. What can the hotel do for guests stranded at the airport, nearly an hour away? They’re on their own, she said. Nothing to be done. The new mall down the street from my hotel was shut, with a sign hanging that said it was because of the bandh. Similar notices hung on metal roll-up doors that normally are, well, rolled up around the noontime lunch hour. The bus stops were empty, the autorickshaw stands at the Taj and other expensive hotels free of drivers waiting to overcharge their fares.
Nadeem Pasha, 26, is a salesman at the Nike store in the shuttered mall. He and two friends sat on a bench across the street from the building, waiting to go to work. The Nike store said it was calling them in despite the closings to do inventory and stock work that they normally would do at night. Why not participate in the strike, I asked him.
“I’m not involved in such matters,” said Pasha, who spent 45 minutes walking to work from the Shivajinagar neighbourhood on a route that he would normally cover in much less time by bus. “We have to achieve our sales targets at any costs.”
That was unlikely on this May 31st, with the store having reached 900,000 rupees and change for the month (about $16,000), well short of the 1.3 million rupees that they were supposed to achieve. (about $23,000).
Nazeer Ahmed, who goes by the name Amjad, said he was driving his autorickshaw despite the call to shut down all transportation. Ahmed, 48, said a wife, five children, his sister and his mother make it impossible for him to skip work just to support the aims of “some political leaders.” “I don’t want to interfere in a party strike,” he said. “We’re responsible people.”
He also noted that he likes the idea of safety, something that might be tough to come by for people driving around the city today. The strike was supposed to sideline all public transportation, and when that didn’t happen, things reportedly turned ugly. Bangalore’s city buses were supposed to run today, but after several reports of buses being pelted with stones and — perhaps ironically for a petrol protest — petrol bombs, the transportation corporation halted service, according to the Press Trust of India.
Why the passion? Here’s one reason:
“Yes, it affects common people, everybody, but government should think. This is one-day suffering, but the petrol price hike causes suffering to people throughout India,” said Kannaiah, a building manager standing by his motorcycle and buying jamuns (aka java plums) from a roadside vendor. “Because of this hike, everything gets expensive, household goods, everything gets affected.”
Though the BJP sparked the protest, one important affair will not suffer as a result. BS Yeddyurappa, the former chief minister of the state of Karnataka, which includes Bangalore, is celebrating the wedding of his
daughter granddaughter this week, and the Times of India reported that BJP-affiliated protesters on Thursday will make sure that they finish on time to get to the festivities. Priorities, my friends, priorities.
(Additional reporting by Abhishek Takle)
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