Most days I am fairly ignorant of the day to day newsworthy happenings in India. I follow a few Indian news sites, so I can tell you about the state of the rupee, which is not good right now; some of the higher profile visitors to India, like Bill Gates last week; the corruption that occurs at all levels of government; and the current struggles of several of India’s national airlines, which is quite the saga. I do make efforts to find out more, but am frequently frustrated by the fact that I don’t follow news enough to learn more about the dynamics at work.
This Wednesday we were surprised to receive notice from the lils school that they would be closed the following day because of a country wide strike to protest a sharp increase in petrol prices. Gas prices are set by the federal government in India and there is some variation by state due to taxation. The current prices in Bangalore are 80rs/litre ($1.51CAD) for petrol and 46rs/litre for diesel ($0.86CAD). The most recent increase was on petrol, and was a significant increase of 7rs/litre ($0.14CAD). Our car is diesel, which has way more price stability, so we were not affected. Many people drive petrol cars, however, so this increase was significant for many Indian families.
The idea of an organized and country wide strike is new to us. Coming from Canada, we don’t often see protests coming in the form of an illegal strike, and I can’t say that we have ever seen one that essentially encompasses the entire country. We have heard of other “bandh” or strikes here since our arrival, but they seemed to have little effect on life in Bangalore. We were very surprised to hear that school had been cancelled, given that the reasons were that the bandh had been confirmed by police, and they were worried that the buses would be disrupted and that the staff would not be able to get to the school.
Willy asked around in his office, and was essentially told that we should use our judgement as to whether or not we should give our helpers the day off, but that we should not expect to see anything in Bangalore. The official line from his office was that the buildings would be open, but that staff should use their own judgement, and only go to work if they felt it was safe to do so. In the end, Willy elected to work from home, we told our driver (who has a fairly long commute to get here) to take the day off, and we let our maid and cook, who both live nearby, decide if they wanted to come in. Our cook decided to take the day off, and our maid elected to wait and see what the day brought.
I wanted to know what was happening, so I turned to twitter in the morning, and was surprised to see that there had been numerous disruptions and some violence in Bangalore. In the middle of the night three of the local transit buses were burned out, and over a dozen others were damaged, which resulted in the cancellation of all public transit buses for the city. Taxis and rickshaw drivers, were seemingly exempt from the bandh, and were profiting nicely by charging triple the regular fare, for any trip. There were reports of motorists being harassed, and shop owners being intimidated into closing. By the middle of the day it was apparent that Bangalore was closed for the day, or at least until 6:00pm, the designated end time for the strike. Those that did venture out reported that the roads were empty, and driving a dream. I wish I could have seen that. There were similar disruptions in some pockets of India, but most of the larger cities were in not affected to the same degree as Bangalore.
In the end, life did go on. Sheela, our maid, arrived late in the day, which allowed us to go out with friends, as planned. The restaurant had many cancellations and was fairly empty, so staff was super attentive, and we likely got a couple of extra wine refills. We were largely unaffected.
This week, the government announced a 2rs roll back of the increase, but claimed it was unrelated to the bandh. The organizers stated that the roll back was unacceptable, but there seems to be much less protest. Many who were given the day off on Thursday were asked to make up the time on the weekend. The businesses who were forced to close lost money, as did the some of their staff (who would not have been paid) and the daily wage earners who would not have been able to find work. People were hurt, and property was damaged. It was impressive to see how quickly life in Bangalore and other cities was turned upside down and then righted again. I don’t know if I would ever see such a widespread and hastily organized protest in Canada.