x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Strike in India closes shops and snarls traffic

A nationwide strike yesterday led by opposition parties to protest against a sharp increase in petrol prices closed shops and disrupted traffic as economic growth and the rupee both weakened.

A labourer sits in front of shuttered shops at the Agricultural Produce Marketting Committee in Bangalore. India's opposition parties held a nationwide strike today, vowing to shut down the country to protest against a rise in petrol prices. Manjunath Kiran / AFP Photo
A labourer sits in front of shuttered shops at the Agricultural Produce Marketting Committee in Bangalore. India's opposition parties held a nationwide strike today, vowing to shut down the country to protest against a rise in petrol prices. Manjunath Kiran / AFP Photo

NEW DELHI // A nationwide strike yesterday led by opposition parties to protest against a sharp increase in petrol prices closed shops and disrupted traffic as economic growth and the rupee both weakened.

The 12-hour strike, called by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), affected life in most parts of the country as protesters pelted and burnt public buses in several major cities, including Pune, Bangalore and Mumbai. States where the BJP and its allies are in power were the most affected.

In Surat, a trading hub in the state of Gujarat, diamond and cloth shops kept their shutters down to prevent vandalism. Surat diamond polishers cut more than 90 per cent of the world's diamonds. Gujarat is governed by the BJP.

Schools were closed and people stayed away from work. Most marketplaces were empty and shops remained shuttered across the country.

In Kolkata, governed by the All India Trinamool Congress, an ally of the Congress-led coalition government, police arrested 38 people for disrupting traffic by putting up road blockades.

There was little effect of the strike in Kerala, where the United Democratic Front, which is allied with the Indian National Congress, is in power. Apart from a few incidents of stone pelting, the state's services remained uninterrupted.

The BJP also protested a 5 per cent increase in taxes by the Delhi municipal government on "green fuel", or compressed natural gas (CNG) that is used by public transport vehicles.

"If the government does not care about tackling pollution, why should we?" said Surinder Bhat, a driver with a travel agency who was driving his Tata Indigo car in Delhi yesterday. "If the price of CNG continues to rise, we will lose all incentive to convert our cars to run on CNG instead of petrol, and stop following government's orders to keep the city pollution-free," said Mr Bhat. "Without subsidies, there is no incentive."

On Monday, Delhi's chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, presented the state's budget and announced a price increase for CNG from 35.45 rupees (Dh2.3) per kilo to 37.20 rupees.

Last week, state-run oil companies also raised petrol prices by more than 11 per cent, or 7.54 rupees a litre - the steepest increase in a decade.

Auto rickshaws and taxis stayed off the roads in Delhi yesterday, to protest against the price rise. Nearly 55,000 auto rickshaw drivers and 15,000 taxi drivers were expected to join the protest and most of them kept off the roads.

"The government increases the prices, expecting to make money off us," said Ramvir Prasad, an auto rickshaw driver in Delhi. "But what about the common man?"

Mr Prasad joined a few hundred BJP workers in trying to block traffic in East Delhi.

Nearly 300 traders shut their shops in Delhi. Most major markets remained closed either in support of the strike or for fear of vandalism by the strikers.

"At this rate, the country and we will go into debt," said Madan Chaurasia, a convenience shop owner in South Delhi as he downed the shutters on his shop yesterday. "There will be no progress, none of that progress that was promised to this country.

"I pay more for goods to be delivered to me. I must keep items in stock but prices of goods are being affected as they are carried around, even from one part of the city to another," said Mr Chaurasia. "Petrol price rises affect everyone. The customers suffer, I suffer."

Figures released yesterday showed India's economic growth slowed to 5.3 per cent in the March quarter, the lowest growth since 2008, largely brought on by rising inflation.

The benchmark Sensex stock index slipped 1.2 per cent after the figures were released.

The data was far worse than expected. Growth for the fiscal year through March was 6.5 per cent.

The figures released yesterday mark a dramatic slide in fortunes for a country that was growing at more than 9 per cent in the years before the global financial crisis. Then, there were ambitions to challenge China as the world's top emerging economy. A series of government flip-flops on economic reform and taxes, heavy government spending on subsidies and a fiscal budget deficit is threatening the country's investment-grade credit rating.

The Reserve Bank of India and the IMF, among others, have been urging the government to enact long-promised reforms that would kick-start growth and stimulate investment. But India's fractious ruling coalition has been unable to push through tough measures.

The rupee yesterday fell to an all-time low. It opened weak yesterday at 55.73 to the US dollar, and touched a low of 56.51 to the dollar, making it one of the worst performing Asian currencies in the market. The rupee has fallen by more than 6 per cent last month.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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* with additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press