A 24-hour strike has disrupted much of India as workers took to the streets in several major cities to protest against the country’s worsening economic slowdown.
At least 10 trade unions called on employees to stage protests on Wednesday against what they described as the “anti-people” policies of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
The strike took place a day after official statistics forecast 5% growth for this year, the slowest in 11 years. The unions are calling for an end to short-term labour contracts, higher pay and a halt to the privatisation of state-owned enterprises.
In Kolkata, protesters set fire to vehicles, including a police van, and ransacked government property and buses. Police responded with a baton charge and fired teargas and rubber bullets. At least 55 people were arrested.
In other parts of West Bengal, unions blocked railway lines and roads, staging sit-ins and burning tyres. There were clashes between student groups that supported the strike and rival political parties opposing it.
Public transport was hit, with reduced bus and train services. There was little movement on the streets of Bihar state due to auto-rickshaw drivers joining in the strike. Kerala was similarly affected, with few buses running and banks largely remaining closed.
In some towns, few shops or banks were open, although the capital, Delhi, and the commercial centre, Mumbai, saw relatively little disruption.
Tens of thousands of workers affiliated to trade unions turned out in many cities, braving the rain to demonstrate in parks and public places against the slowdown.
“I have worked like a slave to educate my four sons. In India, sons are meant to be an asset but my sons are graduates and not one has a job. I have to support them on my salary,” said Avinesh Sethi, a driver in Chandigarh, in Punjab.
Gloom over chronic unemployment has been rising since well before Modi was re-elected for a second term last May. Last year’s figures showed the highest unemployment in 45 years. The sluggish economy has hit rural India the hardest, with farming families reportedly unable to afford common items such as shampoo.
On Tuesday, the economics Nobel prize winner Abhijit Banerjee told an audience in Mumbai: “We are extremely close to a tipping point of a major recession.”
As the bad news mounts, alongside criticism from economists, Modi has cut back his talk of making India a $5tn (£3.8tn) a year economy by 2025.
“Forget that nonsense of trillion-dollar economy,” said Subhashini Ali, a Communist party leader who participated in the strike in Delhi. “When this strike was originally called, it was to register anger against anti-labour laws and the selling-off of the country’s assets. But now it’s broader because there are no jobs. The future of young people is being destroyed by Modi.”
Amarjeet Kaur, a trade union leader, said workers were opposed to the proposed sale of natural resources and state assets. “The working class is on the streets today,” she said.
The unions said hundreds of thousands of workers would lose jobs if the government went ahead with the sale of Air India, Bharat Petroleum Corporation, the Shipping Corporation of India and the Container Corporation of India. The government says it plans to sell the companies because they have been losing money for years.
Alongside the general strike, protests against the government’s new citizenship law, which discriminates against Muslims, continued in several places. There was a large protest at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, which has been at the centre of nationwide demonstrations against the law.