Opposition strike forces shutdown

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Free wayA view of the deserted Howrah Bridge in Kolkata on Thursday during opposition-sponsored
Free wayA view of the deserted Howrah Bridge in Kolkata on Thursday during opposition-sponsored "Bharat bandh."Photo: PTI

Shopkeepers, traders and labourers blocked railway lines and closed markets across the country on Thursday in a nationwide day of protest against reforms allowing in foreign supermarkets such as Walmart.

Opposition parties and trade unions called the strike after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last week announced a raft of reforms designed to revive India's slowing economy, a move that has sparked a furious backlash.

Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai were among cities most affected by the 24-hour strike, with the majority of shops, factories, schools and offices shut down for the day.

Protests were held across India with effigies of Singh burnt by demonstrators in Bangalore, and strikers blocking some national highways and major rail routes.

But the response to the strike appeared mixed with many shops in New Delhi still open, and Mumbai, the country's financial capital, largely untouched after local political parties declined to support the strike.

Many small business owners and workers in India fear that the arrival of large-scale foreign supermarket chains will lead to drastic job losses as supply chains and shopping habits are transformed.

"I am closed for today like most people," said Gautham Bhalla, standing outside his small hardware shop in south Delhi's normally bustling Bhogal market.

"This strike has my total support — we will lose business if these big stores come," he added.

Singh has been buffeted by reaction to the reforms and a sharp rise in diesel prices, with a key West Bengal-based coalition party quitting the government and demanding the policies be reversed.

The Trinamool Congress party said on Tuesday it had decided to withdraw support from the Congress-led ruling coalition in a move analysts said could cause the government to fall before the next elections due in 2014.

Many schools in the country were closed because of the strike, but most government offices remained open.

The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) claimed that 50 million businesses were participating in the protest against the reforms.

"Multinational companies will destroy the economic and social fabric of the country and will adversely impact traders, transporters, farmers and other sections of retail trade," CAIT secretary-general Praveen Khandelwal said.

Consumer revolution

The arrival in India of chains such as Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour is expected to herald a consumer revolution with shoppers moving from small, neighbourhood stores to large, out-of-town supermarkets.

The government and many industry leaders argue that a modern retail system would improve value and choice for Indian consumers, create new jobs and enable farmers to reduce wastage.

But Singh, weakened by the worst quarterly GDP figures in three years and a series of corruption scandals, faces a major challenge to push through the reforms and boost the economy before the next elections.

"Train services have come to a halt across West Bengal as strikers squatted on railway tracks," Samir Goswami, regional public relations officer, told AFP by phone.

In the neighbouring state of Bihar, activists from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also forcibly stopped trains, leaving thousands of passengers stranded.

Trains targeted

"Protesters have tried to target trains and bus stations," Ravinder Kumar, a senior police officer in Patna, the state capital, said. Truck drivers also went on strike over a 12-per cent hike in subsidised diesel prices as the government tries to tackle its widening fiscal deficit.



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