Friday, June 1, 2012

Mass strikes across India over fuel prices

Opposition political parties and trade unions enforced a shutdown in many cities on Thursday, with anti-government marches held in New Delhi and commercial hub Mumbai.

In New Delhi, most shops were closed and traffic was extremely light, with many workers deciding to stay home because of the lack of public transport.

In Mumbai, the Shiv Sena party, a BJP ally, instructed residents that they "should not venture out of their houses" and there were reports of buses being stoned and offices attacked.

Protesters in Patna city meanwhile burned effigies of Manmohan Singh, Indian prime minister, while protesters in Kolkata blocked roads and shouted anti-government slogans.

The strike came on the same day as shock economic growth figures for the January-March quarter showed the slowest quarterly expansion in nine years, of 5.3 per cent.

Al Jazeera's Prerna Suri, reporting from New Delhi, said government's decision to raise fuel prices by over 11 per cent , the highest in the country’s history, triggered the protests.

"And now the opposition is using this anger to rally around support," she said.

'Feeling the heat'

The listless economy, high inflation and a series of corruption scandals have weakened the coalition government headed by the 79-year-old Singh and his Congress party.

"Most of these people are political workers from different political parties across India and they are all saying that they are feeling the heat when it comes to rising inflation and the government's decision to raise fuel prices," our correspondent said of the protesters in New Delhi.

The government faces pressure from the street to help the poor with the rising cost of living in India - annual inflation is running at 7.0 per cent - but analysts say subsidies must be contained due to a gaping public deficit.

"Despite the anger the Indian government says it has no choice but to raise the fuel prices," Al Jazeera's Suri said.

"India's import bill has been ballooning since the rupee has depreciated to the dollar, and since it subsidises most of its fuel, that's where its fiscal deficit is also widening.

"[India is] now telling its people that this is good for the economy, but clearly a lot of people here aren't convinced by this," she said.

In 2010 the government deregulated petrol prices in a reform aimed at reducing the massive subsidies it pays to state-run fuel refiners which rely on imported energy.

A series of smaller petrol price increases last year caused a major headache for the government with the second-largest party in the ruling coalition threatening to pull out.

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