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Trade union strike adds to India’s economic woes

Indian trade union activists of Hind Mazdoor Sabha attack a car on the first day of a two-day strike in Bhubaneswar, India, on Feb. 20, 2013. (Biswaranjan Rout/AP)

Factories were attacked, vehicles were burned and a man was crushed to death by a bus in India on Wednesday at the start of a two-day trade union strike to protest price increases, low wages, unemployment and the government’s economic reform measures.

The man killed by the bus was a trade union leader in the northern city of Ambala. Authorities said he squatted on the ground in the path of a bus in an attempt to keep the buses from moving, then was hit and fatally injured.

Across many parts of India, millions of workers from banks, factories and the transportation industry did not report to their jobs because of the strike, which is likely to cause an economic loss up to $4 billion over two days, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.

The strike — called by 11 national trade unions, including one affiliated with the ruling Congress party — is the latest in a series of anti-government protests that have dogged the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the past two years.

Protesters have attacked Singh’s coalition government for high inflation, corruption scandals and a lack of safety for women. Analysts say the political unrest may trigger a national election earlier than the scheduled date of May 2014.

“The national economy, battling slowdown, can ill-afford this situation,” said Rajkumar Dhoot, the president of the industries association. “In fact, the strike would aggravate the price situation because of disruption in the supply line of essential commodities.”

Earlier this month, the government released data to show that India’s economy grew 5 percent over the past year, the lowest in the past decade.

The trade unions are also demanding effective enforcement of labor protection laws and an end to privatization of state-owned companies. In the past six months, the government has allowed foreign investors such as Wal-Mart to set up supermarket retail stores in India and announced policies to expand private investment in government-owned banks and insurance companies.

Outside New Delhi, protesters smashed the windows of factories, vandalized warehouses and burned vehicles to enforce the work shutdown.

Early this week, Singh appealed to the protesting unions to call off the planned strike, citing the sizeable economic loss and the inconvenience it would pose for people. The government also invited union leaders for discussions and listed proposed measures to boost employment and curb inflation.

“We have heard many assurances, but the government has not done anything so far,” said B. N. Rai, general secretary of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, one of the largest trade unions in the country. “People are not able to cope with the price rise, so we are demanding higher minimum wages for workers. Many of the labor law reforms that the government had agreed to earlier have not been implemented. How long must we wait?”

In the tourism-friendly southern state of Kerala, many tour operators said they did not participate in the strike because they wanted to ensure that the end of India’s tourist season was not affected.

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.

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