A day-long strike by millions of workers brought public transport to a grinding halt and shut down factories and banking services across several parts of India on Wednesday in protest against the government’s proposed labour reforms that the demonstrators feel will put jobs at risk.
Ten central trade unions called for the “Bharat bandh” in support of a 12-point charter demanding higher wages, social security, withdrawal of labour law amendments and an end to privatisation of public sector companies among other things.
Watch: Trade union strike hits transport and banking services in many cities
Workers affiliated to the ruling Trinamool Congress and opposition Left parties clashed with each other and police in parts of West Bengal that has a long history of union activism.
Kolkata wore a deserted look as shops downed shutters, vehicles stayed off the roads and hundreds of people skipped work despite the state government warning that they would lose a day’s salary.
The entire industrial belt of North 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly remained inactive with workers staying away from jute mills and manufacturing plants.
Speaking to the media, a fuming chief minister Mamata Banerjee expressed her dismay at the “bandh culture” and said she wanted to banish it altogether. “I want to put a stop to all bandhs,” she announced, arguing that it was a blow to the eastern state that is trying to revitalise its economic roots.
All India Trade Union Congress secretary Gurudas Dasgupta said the response to the strike had been “magnificent” and estimated over 150 million workers participated across the country.
Most unions except those linked to the BJP joined the protest against the labour reforms proposed by the Narendra Modi government to woo investments, curb rampant strikes, diminish the influence of trade unions and make the labour market more flexible.
“We heard their demands regarding wage, bonus among other things. The government’s scheme will be formula driven but we have taken the demands into consideration,” union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan told the media.
The bandh paralysed southern states Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with thousands of buses stuck at depots in shared capital Hyderabad, inconveniencing white-collar workers and students.
People queued up at the not-so-popular local train stations with auto rickshaws demanding exorbitant fares while police had a tough time managing traffic as hundreds of private vehicles poured onto the roads.
Passengers were stranded at airports and train stations in neighbouring Kerala as buses, taxis and auto rickshaws went off the roads.
The strike affected essential services across the state while chief minister Oommen Chandy’s office said the attendance in the government secretariat was only 21.48%.
Educational institutions and most hospitals in Mumbai were unaffected by the nationwide strike, though medical colleges and district hospitals in the rest of Maharashtra were bruised.
“The demands are going to benefit young recruits. At the state-level, we have several demands which have remained unheard for years. We had planned an indefinite strike starting today,” said Kamal Waikole from the Maharashtra Government Nurses Federation.
Nearly 30,000 bank employees in Gujarat, comprising clerical staff and peons, did not report to work which hit clearing and cash transactions.
Stone quarries in the tribal-dominated Pakur and Sahebganj regions of mineral-rich Jharkhand remained idle as workers went on strike. Production of coal was crippled while banks and even many ATMs were shut in several parts of the state.
In Bhopal, striking workers locked the gates of the income tax office and covered it with banners and flags while similar scenes were witnessed at post offices and the local station of the Geological Survey of India.
Commuters thronged Metro stations and dangled dangerously from buses in Delhi as most auto rickshaws and taxis stayed off the roads also protesting a low-fare cab scheme launched by the AAP government.
“If the Delhi government doesn't pay heed to our demands soon, we will announce more strikes in future,” said Rajendra Soni, general secretary of Delhi Autorickshaw Sangh and Delhi Pradesh Taxi Union. “We cannot compromise with the livelihood of drivers.”
(With inputs from Kolkata, Hyderabad, Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai, Ranchi, Bhopal and agencies)