New Delhi. A nationwide strike called by trade unions including those affiliated with the government hit Indian cities Tuesday, with millions expected to join the call for tighter labor laws and a minimum wage.
Eleven central trade unions have backed the strike call, posing a fresh challenge to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his leftist administration, which had called on the unions to call off the show of force.
“This is an historic occasion. For the first time all the big trade unions have come together to protest the anti-labour polices of the government,” All India Trade Union Congress general secretary Gurudas Dasgupta said.
Among the unions’ demands are a national minimum wage, permanent jobs for 50 million contract labourers and greater government efforts to rein in the rising cost of living.
“We gave the government ample opportunity to discuss these issues. Now striking is the only option before us,” Dasgupta said.
“We are fighting for our rights against a government that is anti-people,” he added.
Singh’s government, already tainted by a series of high-profile corruption scandals, has struggled to keep inflation in single digits at a time when the economy is growing at its slowest rate for three years.
Transport, banking and postal services were all expected to be hit by the 24-hour strike that began midnight Monday.
In Kolkata, a traditional trade union stronghold, most bank branches, shops and other businesses were closed, with taxis and rickshaws staying off the streets.
But the city’s metro was working normally, and West Bengal’s firebrand Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who had denounced the strike call, brought 1,000 state-owned buses into the city to ease the transport problem.
Kolkata police chief R.K. Pachnanda said 10,000 police officers had been deployed across the city, including special units in government offices, bus depots and metro stations to prevent intimidatory picketing by union activists.
In New Delhi, traffic was lighter than usual and people arriving at the capital’s main railway station struggled to find transport to other areas of the city.
“Our most important demand is the abolition of contract labour and a check on the uncontrolled increase in prices,” said G. Sanjeeva Reddy, president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, affiliated to Singh’s Congress party.
“We will study the reaction of the government to this strike before deciding on our future course of action,” Reddy told AFP.