Millions of workers of all political hues have gone on strike across India on Tuesday to express their anger at soaring prices and to back demands for improved rights for employees, trade unions and political activists said.
The strike, which includes workers from state-run phone companies, bus drivers and postal workers, is a new headache for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government as it grapples with weakening economic growth and faces elections in several states.
Workers linked to the ruling Congress party have also joined the protest and have promised further action if their demands are not met.
The protests are not expected to significantly affect banks and financial markets in Asia's third-largest economy, but traders said there could be some volatility in the bond market if volumes are lower than normal.
"Volumes could be lower, but settlement should happen," said a senior dealer at a state-run bank.
The strikers have a long list of demands. Among them, they want the government to take measures to contain inflation, provide universal social security cover for workers in the vast unorganised labour sector, and to stop selling stakes in state-run companies.
"We will have to think about our future course of action if the government does not come forward with proposals on how it will react to our demands," G. Sanjeeva Reddy, president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the ruling party's trade union, said.
Hit by high interest rates, stubborn inflation and a stuttering reform agenda, India's economy is expected to grow by about 7% in the fiscal year ending March, compared with earlier expectations of about 9% growth.
Singh's government has faced a slew of protests since winning a second term in 2009, denting the Congress party's image as a defender of the poor.
The party is currently fighting five state elections, including one in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state.
Tuesday's strike will be the 14th general strike since India opened up its economy with major reforms in 1991.
Strike hits normal life in Kerala
Normal life was disrupted in Kerala on Tuesday due to the country-wide strike called by central trade unions to protest the "anti-labour" policies of the UPA government.
Buses kept off the roads and shops were closed in the state. The strike also affected functioning of banks and offices as pro-Left unions in the state sector also joined the protest against the "neo-liberal economic and labour policies" pursued by the UPA Government at the Centre.
The Congress-led UDF Government in the state has enforced 'dies non' (no work-no pay) order against the strike in government offices.
Early reports from across the state said in most places the mobility of people was hit as the impact of the strike was near total in the transport sector with buses, taxis and autorickshaws keeping off the road.
The rail traffic, however, was not affected and no blockade was reported from anywhere in the early hours. There was no disruption in electricity or water supply and the health sector exempted from the strike.
Normal life unaffected by strike in Kolkata
Normal life on Tuesday remained largely unaffected in Kolkata due to the general strike called to protest "anti-labour" policies of the government, with chief minister Mamata Banerjee warning state government employees that absence from duty will be treated as a break in service.
State government-run buses, taxis, trams, trains and Metro rail services were normal though private buses were plying in fewer number.
Flight operations from NSC Bose international airport here were normal. All morning flights of Air-India and other private airlines left Kolkata airport as schedule, sources said.
"Everything has been normal so far. Things are going on well. Tight security arrangements are in place with 400 police pickets set up in various parts of the city," City police commissioner R K Pachnanda said.
Railway sources said the train services in Howrah, Asansol and Malda division of Eastern Railway are normal.
Major unions have called a countrywide strike to protest the "anti-labour" policies of the government, rising prices and disinvestment of PSUs.
Peaceful start to strike in Maharashtra
Employees of banks, insurance companies, central government and local bodies as well as workers in several private industries joined a 24-hour all India strike of various trade unions in Maharashtra on Tuesday.
However, the state government, railways and BEST (city public bus service) employees have not joined the strike on account of ongoing examinations while essential services have been kept out, one of the organisers in Maharashtra said.
"The strike response is total, spontaneous and peaceful. This afternoon, thousands of striking workers shall march to Azad Maidan for a rally which will be addressed by top union leaders," All India Bank Employees Association secretary Vishwas Utagi said.
The strike, which has secured the support of around 5000 unions affiliated to all the major trade unions cutting across party lines, is to protest against price rise, corruption, violation of labour rights, free market policies and disinvestment which would result in loss of jobs, Utagi said.
Delhi invokes ESMA on power companies
In view of Tuesday's nation-wide strike called by a number of trade unions, Delhi government on Monday clamped the Essential Services Maintenance Act on all power companies in the city to ensure that there is no disruption in electricity supply in the national Capital.
"Delhi government has clamped ESMA on all power companies including generation, distribution and other power companies in view of the proposed strike tomorrow," a statement issued by the chief minister's office said.
It said the ESMA would remain in force for next six months.
(With inputs from PTI, Reuters, IANS)