New Delhi/Mumbai: Business was hit, roads deserted and train traffic disrupted Thursday as large parts of India shut down to protest the hike in petrol prices, leaving the Manmohan Singh-led government battling a surge of unpopularity on a day that economic growth slumped to its lowest in nine years.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government found itself isolated as the left and the right opposition called for a 12-hour nationwide strike against the May 23 hike of Rs.7 plus in petrol prices.
Many thousands were stranded at rail stations, airports and bus terminals and many others couldn’t get to work as the strike called by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its constituents in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as well as the Left parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and others took effect.
The shutdown saw street protests and sporadic violence in most states, from Jammu and Kashmir to Karnataka and from Tripura to Maharashtra. Roads and train tracks were blockaded and some buses were torched.
The shutdown was complete in some states where the governments backed the call against inflation and increasing prices. Like in Uttar Pradesh, where the ruling SP was amongst those who called the protest.
Ditto in Bihar, where the JD-U is in power, Odisha, with a BJD government in place, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, ruled by the BJP, and Tripura, where the Left Front endorsed the strike.
The situation was similar in other states ruled by the opposition, be it Karnataka or Himachal Pradesh, where Chief Minister P.K. Dhumal walked to office in a mark of protest.
The shutdown call struck a chord even in Congress-ruled states.
In Andhra Pradesh, the shutdown was partial in the capital Hyderabad but near total in the districts with shops, petrol bunks, businesses and educational institutions closed.
The Congress government waged a lone battle as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and YSR Congress Party supported the BJP and the Left.
In Congress-ruled Assam too, the response was total.
India’s financial capital Mumbai was paralysed as were many parts of Maharashtra. Despite stringent security taken by the Congress-led government, there were four incidents of government buses being stoned.
The shutdown was supported by anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare and even Mumbai’s famed ‘dabbawallas’, who did not provide their regular tiffin delivery services.
In states like Meghalaya, the response was muted and Kerala reported business as usual.
Though the day passed off relatively peacefully, opposition leaders quoted arrest in several places.
In Delhi, Marxist leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury and D. Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI) were detained.
“This (arrest) is part of the big struggle against petrol price rise… We will protest till there is complete rollback,” added CPI-M’s Brinda Karat.
Added Asom Gana Parishad’s Apurba Mumar Bhattacharjyya in Guwahati: “The support of the common people is the expression of anger and frustration of those hit by the price rise of essential commodities.”
As if in echo, autorickhsaw driver Ranbir said in Delhi that politicians were not alone in this cause.
Hitting out at the government for prices that made his day-to-day living more precarious, he said: “There is genuine anger among the common people. I have always voted for the Congress. In the next election, I shall not vote for the Congress.”
It was a tough day for the government. As the strike continued, it was announced that economic growth had slumped to 5.3 percent in January-March quarter, the slowest in nine years. For the 2011-12 financial year, GDP growth slipped to just 6.5 percent.
Blaming the opposition parties, Congress spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury said such shutdowns were “outdated”.
“The common man, including fruit sellers, flower sellers… they have suffered loss in sales. It would have been better if the opposition had made suggestions on how to deal with the challenge,” she said.