Singh Seeks to Avert Strike as Indian Workers Protest Inflation

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought negotiations with workers to avert a planned strike this week as 11 trade unions across the political spectrum called for protests against issues including rising prices and the government’s sale of state assets.

Cabinet colleagues including Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and Farm Minister Sharad Pawar will hold talks with union leaders today. The two-day strike starting Feb. 20 “would lead to avoidable loss to our economy and inconvenience to the public through disruption of services,” Singh said in a statement, asking unions to call it off.

The strike would mark the latest in a string of street protests Singh has faced in his second term as the benchmark inflation rate stayed above 6 percent from 2010 and with the $1.8 trillion economy poised for its slowest pace of expansion in a decade. “More than 100 million” workers will participate in this week’s stoppage, a union leader said.

Singh’s “economic activities are causing greater loss to the country than the strike by the trade unions,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. The protesters plan to block rail and road traffic, while picketing will hurt operations at banks, insurers, phone carriers, ports and coal mining companies, he said.

Trade unions supporting the protests include the Indian National Trade Union Congress, affiliated to Singh’s ruling Congress party, and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh that owes political allegiance to the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

Bonds, Currencies

Any widespread strike may decrease trading volumes of bonds and currencies in the financial hub of Mumbai as workers walk out, according to Harihar Krishnamoorthy, Mumbai-based treasurer at FirstRand Bank Ltd.

“If there’s a strike, we can see some disruption in trading of bonds and currencies,” he said. “That could affect volumes.”

The average daily traded volume in bonds was 498 billion rupees ($9.2 billion) in January, while it was $20.8 billion for foreign exchange, according to the Clearing Corp. of India Ltd., the company that guarantees settlement of transactions.

In an effort to kick start the economy set to grow 5 percent in the year ending March 31, Singh in September began his biggest policy push in a decade, relaxing rules on foreign investment in the retail and aviation industries. The moves came after corruption allegations against officials and parliamentary gridlock set back his development agenda.

Rejecting Appeal

The trade unions want the government to take measures to curb price gains, create jobs, stop the sale of stakes in state-run companies and enforce labor laws, social security provisions and minimum wages for workers. The government raised $2.1 billion this month selling shares in NTPC Ltd., the nation’s biggest power generator, and $1.1 billion from a December offering in NMDC Ltd., the largest iron ore producer.

“There is no question of calling off the strike,” the Press Trust of India quoted Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, as saying. “We want a settlement from government, not an assurance.”

Graft allegations roiled Singh’s administration starting end-2010 after the nation’s chief auditor said in a report that the 2008 sale of phone licenses was not transparent and may have cost the exchequer as much as $31 billion in potential revenue.

Demonstrations in December against the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman turned violent, prompting police to deploy water cannons to disperse crowds in New Delhi.

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