Millions Strike Against Privatization
BBC News
May 21, 2003

Millions of workers in India have held a nationwide strike in protest at government plans to privatise state-owned businesses.

The one-day stoppage severely affected the banking, transport, insurance and mining sectors, and brought Calcutta to a virtual standstill as protesters marched through the streets.

Public transport, including the Calcutta underground ground to halt, while attendance at government offices was very poor.

The strike was called by trade unions including the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, who claimed about 40 million workers were participating in the walk-out.

They are calling for a halt to the government's ongoing privatisation and plans to change labour laws.

Job losses

The strike is being described as the biggest show of discontent in recent times against the central government's economic policies.

The government's privatisation plans aim to raise 132 billion rupees ($2.75bn) by selling off state-run companies in the year ending March 2004.

But protesters claim this is leading to widescale job losses. They are also angry at plans to allow state-run companies to fire workers and reduce deposit rates for pension funds.

"We want a complete halt to privatisation and other economic policies that favour only the rich," said Swadesh Dev Roye, leader of the National United Forum, an umbrella group of labour unions in state-run oil companies.

National standstill

The strike almost crippled the financial sector, with four out of the nine major banking unions taking part and the Calcutta stock exchange was shut.

Movement and handling of goods in most of the country's ports also came to a standstill.

Rail and air transport were disrupted and Calcutta's normally crowded roads were empty except for children playing and some police vehicles.

Train services in both Eastern and South Eastern railway were hit as protesters blocked railway tracks in various places, leaving many tourists, amongst others, stranded.

The strike's impact was most felt in areas where the left-wing parties are either in government, like West Bengal, or have a substantial following such as the southern states of Andra Pradesh and Kerala, said the BBC's Sanjeev Srivastava in Delhi.

Government stalled?

He said the government was unlikely to give in to demands immediately but that the strike could slow down reforms.

The government may not want to annoy the trade unions in the run up to national elections next year, he said.

The government has said labour reforms are needed to allow Indian industry to compete with countries such as China.

And it claims privatisation is needed to bridge its increasing fiscal deficit.

But plans to sell national oil firms have been strongly rejected by key ministers including defence minister George Fernandes and petroleum minister Ram Naik.

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