India Insight

Strike that: Whose loss is it anyway?

A few buses have been torched, a few trains have been stopped, a few people failed to get to work, a few shops were shut, a few lost their daily wages and the exchequer will register a big loss. Someone is telling India’s “common man” that this strike is in his interest.

The transportation shutdown that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and several left-leaning parties called for as a protest against a steep rise in petrol prices is seen as a means to exploit popular anger against the ruling Congress-led government, though political parties insist that they won’t benefit at election time.

A 12-hour ‘Bharat Bandh‘ (“India shutdown”) to protest against inflation in 2010 cost the exchequer 130 billion rupees, according to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). This time it can only be more. Given all of India’s other problems, can the country afford such losses?

For many autorickshaw drivers, rickshaw pullers and daily wage labourers, a strike means no earnings for the day. That’s good enough reason to look for alternate ways to protest.

A strike does register dissatisfaction with the government, but it is difficult to understand how it would help in the rollback of petrol prices or in providing an alternate economic strategy.

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.