Major Strike in India to Oppose Economic Policies
September 28, 2005

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration faced its first general strike since coming to power last year, as a million workers or more planned a nationwide protest Thursday to oppose its economic policies.

Indian authorities had prepared emergency plans to deal with a one-day strike called by bank and airport workers. A spokesman for the Airports Authority of India said on Wednesday that it had sought help from the air force, the navy and government agencies to maintain normal operations.

The walkout has been called by some labor unions to protest what they call a failure of the government to review its major policy initiatives.

Their list of 16 demands includes ending asset sales of profitable state-owned companies, lowering the limit on foreign investment in telecommunications, stronger labor laws and higher interest rates on pension funds.

"Workers will remain absent from their duties throughout the country in government offices, banks, ports, airports, telecom and industrial units," said Swadesh Dev Roye, secretary of the Center of Indian Trade Unions.

Seven trade unions, six of them affiliated with communist parties that support Singh's federal coalition government, have called the strike, which could also affect work in insurance and oil companies, railways and offices of the federal and state governments.

"The strike is likely to have some impact on the government's economic policies because the communist parties, which support the government, are backing the strike," said K.K. Mital, chief investment officer of Escorts Asset Management in New Delhi. "The communist parties are there to put pressure on the government."

As many as 20,000 of 22,000 airport workers will stay away from work to protest a government plan to sell stakes in the airports in Mumbai and New Delhi, the busiest in India, the workers supporting the strike said. Air-traffic controllers will not participate.

Bank unions said they were fully committed to the strike.

"The strike would be near total, with more than 95 percent of the bank employees participating in it," said C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association.

Other unions withheld their support. India's biggest union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which has 8.4 million members and is associated with the main opposition party, Bharatiya Janata, is abstaining.

"The strike has been called with political intentions and is not related to the welfare of labor," said Amar Nath Dogra, the union's secretary.

The Indian National Trade Union Congress, which is affiliated with the Congress Party, also is not supporting the strike.

Singh's government has struggled to implement its economic agenda, which is intended to help economic growth by increasing foreign direct investment and financing social welfare programs by selling assets in state-owned companies.

The government has increased the overseas direct investment limit in telecommunications to 74 percent from 49 percent and in aviation to 49 percent from 40 percent. It plans to ease investment restrictions in insurance and banking sectors and, for the first time, to allow overseas investment in retail trade.

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