There were stray incidents of violence at the start of a two-day strike called by trade unions to protest against high prices and policy changes, including foreign investment in supermarkets, that they said could hurt employment.
Many banks were closed and public transport was disrupted in several parts of the country.
As many as 11 trade unions, including the ruling Congress party affiliated Indian National Trade Unions Congress (INTUC), said the first day of the protest that they had called jointly was successful in putting pressure on the government to listen to them.
“At least 95% of our workers from steel, manufacturing, mining and transport sectors came on the road to protest,” said G. Sanjeeva Reddy, president of INTUC. “The government and the party (Congress) have to listen to the just demand of the poor workers. Economic growth has no meaning unless it trickles down to the common workers,” Reddy said. INTUC has 20 million members.
C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA), said the strike was a success at state-owned banks.
“The government is talking about expanding private-sector banks by giving new licences but its wants consolidation among public sector banks,” Venkatachalam said. “We are against this.”
About 4 million cheques worth about Rs.25,000 crore were not processed on Wednesday as various clearing houses remained shut, AIBEA said in a statement. Employees at 80,000 branches of commercial banks and about 70,000 branches of co-operative banks participated in the strike, the trade union said.
Some one million bank employees were on strike, according to P.K. Sarkar, convenor of the United Forum of Bank Unions, a confederation of nine unions of bank employees. “This will continue tomorrow as well,” Kolkata-based Sarkar said.
India may have suffered a loss of Rs.26,000 crore because of the strike and Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, was hit badly, The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) lobby group said.
“Such incidents completely shake the confidence of the industry and the market, for which security and peace is of paramount importance. Besides, the retail customers choose to stay indoors leading to considerable fall in trading business, the lifeline of the country’s economy,” Assocham president Rajkumar Dhoot said.
Although the protest was largely peaceful, trains were stopped in parts of Bihar and Orissa. There was some violence in Noida, the industrial township in Uttar Pradesh on the outskirts of Delhi. In Ambala, Punjab, a Haryana Roadways employee was killed accidentally when he was run over by a bus.
In Bhubaneswar, some protesters set fire to effigies of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi. In Gujarat, more than 8,000 state-owned buses stayed off the roads, officials said.
The strike comes a day before Parliament convenes for the budget session, during which the government is expected to present an austerity budget to contain its fiscal deficit to below 5.3% and spur investment.
Other national trade unions said that even unorganized sectors of the economy joined the protest. Trade union leaders said although a meeting with the central government was inconclusive on Monday, they were hopeful that the government will take note of the strike and act on the relevant issues quickly.
“The group of ministers only appealed to us on Monday but had not done their homework,’ INTUC’s Reddy said. “We expect them to reach out to us on Thursday again.”
Mint’s Asit Ranjan Mishra in Delhi, Dinesh Unnikrishnan in Mumbai, and Reuters contributed