Strikes over fuel prices hit three Indian states - Emirates24|7

Strikes over fuel prices hit three Indian states

Strikes shut down transport, businesses and schools in three communist-run Indian states on Thursday after a rise in fuel prices, but there was little sense of real fury against the government.

Communist allies of the ruling coalition kicked off a week of protests against Wednesday's price hikes by calling one-day strikes in the three states they rule, West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, leaving streets, offices and airports largely deserted.

They say the government should have done more to insulate consumers from high global oil prices, even though it only passed on a fraction of surging crude costs when it raised heavily subsidised prices of petrol and diesel by about 10 per cent.

Some people said the left's protest was cynical politics that would only make life worse for ordinary people.

"I don't support the strike. The politicians call them at the drop of a hat," said Manisha Mukherjee, who had gone to Kolkata's airport to see off a relative only to find the flight had been cancelled. "This is not in the common people's interest."

Rickshaw puller Anwar Ali saw things differently.

"The government does not care for poor people like us," he said. "Today they have raised fuel prices, tomorrow the prices of other essentials will go up and we will continue to suffer."

Protesters, some waving red flags, stopped trains and buses in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, and even forced people out of cabs to enforce the dawn-to-dusk strike, witnesses and police said. Rain also helped keep people off the streets.

Hundreds of people arriving at the city's airport found themselves stranded with no transport into the city. There will be more pain on Friday, when the main opposition party in the state, Trinamool Congress, throws its weight behind a 12-hour strike.

While consumers got used to costlier fuel, officials at state-run refiners said Wednesday's price rise was higher than they expected but still inadequate, given crude oil's record run.

Shares of state refiners Hindustan Petroleum Corp Ltd, Indian Oil Corp and Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd fell up to 4 per cent on Thursday, continuing their fall after a brief spurt on Wednesday when prices were raised.


Stoppages also hit the tiny northeastern state of Tripura and the southern state of Kerala, where the container port of Kochi, an important commodities transit point, was shut.

But software companies in Kerala's main cities were largely unaffected, transporting people to work as normal in company buses, but with police escorts.

At a public bus terminal in Thiruvananthapuram, passengers said the communists had no right to leave them stranded.

"We don't expect such an anti-people approach from a labour party," said Unnikrishnan, who arrived on Thursday morning but found himself stuck 20 km (12 miles) from home.

With state oil companies on the verge of bankruptcy, India's coalition government had little choice but to raise fuel prices, analysts say.

But the decision is bound to push inflation, already at a 3 and a half year high of around 8 per cent, still higher, and cause more political headaches for a Congress party-led government facing re-election within a year.

Rising prices of foods and other essential commodities have been driving inflation up and alienating voters, and a Reuters poll on Wednesday showed economists expect the fuel price increases to push it higher to a 13-year high in early June.

A few state governments agreed to a request from the centre to cut their own taxes on fuel to mitigate the impact on consumers, although this is only likely to add to overall government borrowing, economists said.

Some newspapers gave the government credit for biting the bullet and pushing through a bigger hike than expected.

But the Hindustan Times said it had not gone far enough, and should not be forcing oil companies to sell fuel below cost.

"This sad state of affairs will persist as no government has the courage to desist from political fixation of oil prices to insulate their middle-class vote bank," it wrote in an editorial.

"There's a large portion of the bullet still to be consumed."