NEW DELHI — A nationwide strike called by trade unions including those affiliated with the government hit Indian cities Tuesday, as millions joined the call for tighter labour laws and a minimum wage.
Eleven central trade unions backed the strike call, posing a fresh challenge to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his leftist administration, which had called on the unions to call off the show of force.
"This is a historic occasion. For the first time all the big trade unions have come together to protest the anti-labour polices of the government," All India Trade Union Congress general secretary Gurudas Dasgupta told AFP.
Among the unions' demands are a national minimum wage, permanent jobs for 50 million contract labourers, more government efforts to rein in the rising cost of living, and an end to the sale of stakes in profitable public companies.
"We gave the government ample opportunity to discuss these issues. Now striking is the only option before us," Dasgupta said.
"We are fighting for our rights against a government that is anti-people," he added.
Singh's government, already tainted by a series of high-profile corruption scandals, has struggled to keep inflation in single digits at a time when the economy is growing at its slowest rate for three years.
Transport, banking and postal services were all hit by the 24-hour strike that began midnight Monday.
In Kolkata, a traditional trade union stronghold, most bank branches, shops and other businesses were closed, with taxis and rickshaws staying off the streets.
But the city's metro was working normally, and West Bengal's firebrand Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who had denounced the strike call, brought 1,000 state-owned buses into the city to ease the transport problem.
Kolkata police chief R.K. Pachnanda said 10,000 police officers had been deployed across the city, including special units in government offices, bus depots and metro stations to prevent intimidatory picketing by union activists.
The Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency said about 100 pro-strike supporters had been arrested in different districts for obstructing rail and road traffic.
In Mumbai, the financial capital of India, All India Bank Employees Association general secretary Vishwas Utagi claimed there was a "complete shutdown" in the banking sector.
The clearing house for transactions at the central bank had been shut, "so the private and foreign banks where we do not a have a presence, also get affected," he told Press Trust of India agency.
Elsewhere, the state government, railways and the city public bus service employees were largely unaffected, while schools and colleges were open.
In New Delhi, traffic was lighter than usual and people arriving at the capital's main railway station struggled to find transport to other areas of the city.
Just a couple of staff had reported for work at a branch of the Bank of India, a public bank, in the centre of the capital which was open, but no business was being carried out.
"We are backing the protest because the demands are legitimate," said one bank clerk who had reported for duty.
Business lobby group ASSOCHAM condemned the strike and said losses could be up to 100 billion rupees (2 billion dollars).
"Industrial strikes cause huge losses to the national exchequer and should not be there as the country strives to achieve 9 percent GDP growth in the coming years," secretary general D.S. Rawat said in a statement.
G. Sanjeeva Reddy, president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, affiliated to Singh's Congress party, said it was time the government lent them an ear.
"Our most important demand is the abolition of contract labour and a check on the uncontrolled increase in prices," said Reddy.
"We will study the reaction of the government to this strike before deciding on our future course of action," he told AFP.
Down south in the state of Kerala, the Congress-led state government enforced "dies non" (no work-no pay) order against the employees, PTI said.
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