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India braces for nationwide strike

Feb 20 2013 08:35 AFP

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New Delhi - Millions of Indian workers were expected to join a two-day nationwide strike starting on Wednesday in protest against "anti-labour" economic reforms introduced by the embattled Congress government.

Premier Manmohan Singh has appealed to unions to abandon the strike, the latest in a string of protests against liberalisation, warning it would cause a "loss to our economy" already poised for its slowest annual growth in a decade.

A one-day strike against reforms last September cost Asia's third-largest economy $2.3bn in lost output and trade, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry.

But talks following Singh's appeal this week collapsed after the government refused to bow to union demands to roll back reforms, which are aimed at jumpstarting the economy and averting a downgrade in India's credit rating.

"The workers are being totally ignored and this is reflected in the government's anti-labour policies," said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the umbrella Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

The 11 unions behind the strike plan to block rail and road traffic, and said operations of state-run banks would be disrupted.

The government's "big ticket" reforms include opening retail, insurance and aviation sectors to wider foreign investment, hiking prices of subsidised diesel used by farmers and reducing the number of discounted cooking gas cylinders.

The steps aimed at freeing up the still heavily state-controlled economy and lowering India's ballooning subsidy bill and fiscal deficit have stirred wide public anger, especially among the poor.

"The last time that we called a strike (in February 2012), nearly 100 million workers participated. This time we're expecting a bigger number," Sen said.

The protest was expected to have maximum impact in eastern West Bengal, where unions enjoy significant clout. The walkout could also have a big effect in southern Kerala state where strikes are common.

It might be business as usual however in financial hub Mumbai, where some unions said they would not protest.

An overtly patchwork response indicating a lessening of union influence would be welcome news for the government, which has been buffeted by graft scandals, the weakening economy and stubbornly high inflation, analysts said.


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