MUMBAI, India — Kids played cricket on empty streets and motorbikes easily zoomed through normally congested intersections in Mumbai as opposition parties pulled off a nationwide strike Monday to protest a fuel price hike.
The strike, called by the main opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the leftist bloc, closed businesses and schools and disrupted ground and air transportation. Police made thousands of arrests and sporadic acts of violence were reported in cities across the country.
The one-day strike represents a protest by the opposition parties and the nation’s lower and middle classes against the Congress-led government's policies that have led to spiraling food and fuel prices.
While India’s economy, one of the fastest growing in the world, is expected to increase by more than 8 percent this year, much of the country’s poor are left out. India — where one in two children is malnourished — accounts for a third of the world’s 1.4 billion poor people, according to the World Bank.
The government scrapped its fuel subsidies last month in an attempt to keep its promise to cut the fiscal deficit. The cut in subsidies led to a 6.7 percent increase in fuel prices, which is likely to add nearly one percentage point to the nation’s already double-digit inflation. The price of some food has gone up more than 70 percent in the past two years, according to India Today.
“Costs have gone sky high,” said architect and college teacher Sunil Magdum, who said he supported the strike and was riding a local train in Mumbai on Monday because he can no longer afford to drive his car regularly. The opposition parties have been successful, he added, “because they’re united today and [the] common man is with them.”
“This protest has been widely supported by the average common man because he is really the target of the government's policies," senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley told local reporters in the northern city of Lucknow on Monday. Jaitley was then arrested for illegal assembly.
India’s financial and entertainment capital Mumbai was one of the worst affected cities. Domestic airlines canceled almost 90 flights, schools and most businesses closed, protesters stood on train tracks to disrupt service, and the city’s ubiquitous taxies and auto rickshaws virtually disappeared from the streets. Opposition groups protested and workers attacked dozens of government buses.
One traveler arriving at Mumbai’s domestic airport, could not find a single taxi or rickshaw and had to rent a private tourist rental car to get home. He paid 1,000 rupees ($22) or about 10 times the normal cost.
The strike, the biggest by the opposition in recent years, cost the country about 30 billion rupees ($640 million) in lost business, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry.
Despite the strike, India’s Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said there was “no question” of rolling back the fuel price hike, as reported in the local press.
The Times of India reported that the Maharashtra state government had attempted to prevent the strike by detaining more than 14,000 “potential troublemakers” over the weekend. Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, also beefed up the presence of police officers across the city.
Despite government attempts to keep Mumbai running as normal, opposition parties proved they had the power to unite the city’s poor and force the financial capital — a fast-paced city normally buzzing with energy and people — to a slow crawl.
P. Sainath, a veteran local journalist, said the poor are not only left out of India’s growth but also often dismissed by the country’s powerful.
“In the last 15 years, everything that has become a convenience to the upper middle-class has become cheaper," he said during a lecture last month. "You take air tickets, computers, cars etc. ... they are all affordable for us. But in this same period rice, wheat, electricity, water, etc. has become 300 to 500 percent more expensive for the poor. Why is this not reflected in the media?
“Today newspapers have no labor correspondent, housing or primary education correspondent. We are explicitly telling 70 percent of this country that they don't matter to us.”