A 24-hour strike has disrupted much of India after workers took to the streets in several major cities to protest against the country’s worsening economic slowdown.
At least 10 trade unions called on employees to stage protests on Wednesday against what they described as the “anti-people” policies of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
The strike took place a day after official statistics forecast 5% growth for this year, the slowest in 11 years. The unions are calling for an end to contractual labour, higher pay, and a halt to the disinvestment of state-owned enterprises.
In Calcutta protesters set fire to vehicles, including a police van, and ransacked government property and buses. Police responded with a baton charge and fired teargas and rubber bullets. At least 55 people were arrested.
In other parts of West Bengal unions blocked railway lines and roads, staging sit-ins and burning tyres. There were clashes between student groups which supported the strike and rival political parties which opposed it.
Public transport was hit with fewer buses and trains running services. There was little movement on the streets of Bihar state due to auto rickshaw drivers joined in the strike. Kerala was similarly affected, with few buses running and banks largely remaining closed.
In some towns, few shops or banks were open although the capital New Delhi and the commercial centre, Mumbai, saw relatively little disruption.
Tens of thousands of workers affiliated to trade unions turned out in many cities, braving rain, to demonstrate in parks and public places against the slowdown.
“I have worked like a slave to educate my four sons. In India sons are meant to be an asset but my sons are graduates and not one has a job. I have to support them on my salary,” said Avinesh Sethi, a driver in Chandigarh, in Punjab.
Gloom over chronic unemployment has been rising since well before Modi was re-elected for a second term last May. Last year’s figures showed the highest unemployment in 45 years. The sluggish economy has hit rural India the hardest with farming families not reportedly not able to afford common items such as biscuits or shampoo.
As the bad news on the economic front piles up, alongside criticism from economists, Modi has cut back his talk of making India a trillion dollar economy by 2025.
“Forget that nonsense of trillion dollar economy,” said Subhashini Ali, a communist party leader who participated in the strike in New Delhi. “When this strike was originally called, it was to register anger against anti-labour laws and the selling off of the country’s assets. But now it’s broader because there are no jobs. The future of young people is being destroyed by Modi.”
Alongside the general strike, ongoing protests against the government’s new citizenship law, which discriminates against Muslims, continued in several places. There was a large protest at Jamia Millia Islamia University, in the capital, which has been at the centre of nationwide demonstrations against the law.