Millions of Workers Join India Strike, Shutting Banks, Canceling Flights

Millions of workers in India stayed away from work to protest against rising prices, job losses and state asset sales, forcing banks to shut offices in some cities and airlines to cancel flights.

“Persistently high inflation has made life difficult for a common man,” said Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary at the All India Trade Union Congress. ‘Banking and civil aviation are the worst affected sectors so far.”

Today’s strike, the second in two months, affected business mainly in states ruled by communist parties. Inflation has held near ten percent this year, eroding incomes of almost three quarters of the population who live on less than $2 a day. A nationwide strike in July, called by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, shut schools and offices and grounded flights.

“The strike is quite widespread” in the states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, said M.K. Pandhe, vice president at the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. “Telecom, insurance, defense, banking, coal, power, port and road transport sectors have been affected.” Pandhe estimates about 60 million workers are on strike.

About one million bank employees in India joined the strike today to protest the central bank’s plan to offer new banking licenses and norms that allow foreign investment in the nation’s lenders, said Vishwas Utagi, secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association, the largest trade union for banking staff in the nation.

Against Foreign Banks

The Reserve Bank of India, state-run lenders and a unit of HDFC Bank Ltd. are likely to be affected by the strike, Utagi said. The association is rallying its members to also express their opposition to the entry and expansion of foreign banks and the consolidation of state-run lenders, he said.

“Public-sector banks weathered the financial crisis better than private banks and foreign banks,” Utagi said. “They should be strengthened.”

Reserve Bank spokeswoman Alpana Killawala couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. HDFC Bank’s branches in the east and north east are closed, with the lender’s other operations continuing as normal, said Neeraj Jha, a spokesman at the Mumbai-based bank. Milind Arjunwadkar, deputy general manager of public relations at State Bank of India, the nation’s largest lender, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

ICICI Bank Ltd. and Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd., India’s two largest non-state banks by market value, are unlikely to be directly affected as the union doesn’t have members at those lenders, Utagi said.

Bank Officers

Bank officers won’t join the strike, though the All India Bank Officers’ Confederation will offer its “fraternal support,” according to a statement from that union yesterday. “Clerical staff, including employees handling cash, senior assistants, are on strike,” said G.D. Nadaf, general secretary of the All India Bank Officers’ Confederation.

Jet Airways India Ltd. canceled 30 flights, including those of its low-cost carrier JetLite, to and from Kolkata, the capital of the communist-ruled West Bengal state. Kingfisher Airlines Ltd. cancelled 29 flights arriving and departing from Kolkata, while SpiceJet Ltd. cancelled 27 flights, the companies said in e-mailed statements.

Air India spokesman K. Swaminathan said that the airline had only cancelled one flight from Kolkata today.

“Only flights to Kolkata and inbound from Kolkata are affected at both Delhi and Hyderabad airports,” said Arun Bhagat, spokesman at GMR Group, which runs the airports.

Indian bond, stock and currency were functioning normally, according to traders.

“Everything is functioning normally,” said Vikas Babu, a currency trader at state-owned Andhra Bank in Mumbai. “There is no disruption.”

Fixed income securities worth 35.1 billion rupees ($752 million) were traded on central bank’s trading system in the first two hours of trading today, almost half of yesterday’s total trading volume of 72.1 billion rupees, according to the Clearing Corporation of India Ltd.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ruth David in Mumbai at rdavid9@bloomberg.net; Kartik Goyal in New Delhi at kgoyal@bloomberg.net

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