HARTALS AND BUNDHS Whenever there is an unusually large queue before liquor outlets in Kerala, it can be safely guessed that the next day is either an official dry day or a shutdown strike has been announced.
Why almost everyone seems to love a shutdown in Kerala (though a day of it costs Rs 900 crore) Despite the efforts of the courts and non-governmental groups, the culture of public agitation continues to hold sway in the southern state.
Such strikes, called by anybody for any cause, is an occasion for celebration for Keralites. They stay at home and eat, drink and watch television. The TV channels too are mindful of the holiday by rolling out special programmes.
Along with adequate liquor, food items too have to be stocked up the previous day. Chicken and beef are the favourite bites to go with the booze, so meat and fish stalls all do brisk business.
Extra sales of liquor on the day before the strike ranges between Rs 3 crores and Rs 5 crores, with Kerala State Beverages Corporation, one of the two state-run agencies controlling the retail sale of Indian Made Foreign Liquor, alone recording an increase of about Rs 3 crores.
The corporation's average sale on a normal day in the state with a population of little above three crores is worth Rs 15 crores. Similarly the meat merchants also record an increase of 30% to 40% in business on the day before the strike.
The salaried class, especially government employees, like strikes since they get paid even through they do not go to work. Though it hurts agricultural workers and other daily wage earners, their numbers in Kerala are shrinking year after year due to the growing aversion among educated Keralites towards manual labour.
The state witnesses about 100 strikes, including regional ones, a year. People are doubly happy if a strike falls just before or after a weekend. The opportunities are plenty as political parties, trade unions, social and religious organisations and even farmers and traders see these shutdowns as an answer to all their ills.
Organising a strike does not need much preparation, unlike other protests that require effort to mobilise public support. An anti-shutdown activist claims that all it needs to make a strike a success is a press statement and a few musclemen.
The role of musclemen has come down drastically since the state government automatically switches into a shutdown mode after a strike is called. Earlier, musclemen were needed to block roads and force shops and offices to close. Now, vehicles go off roads and shops and commercial establishments lower their shutters without any coercion.
The government declares a holiday for educational institutions, and universities and examination boards cancel examinations. Though offices and factories are kept open, very few report for duty. No other form of agitation evokes such spontaneous support from the people.
Hartals vs bandhs
It was believed that people preferred to stay indoors during strikes because of violence. Though violent incidents have come down drastically after the courts came down heavily against the forceful enforcement of shutdowns, hartals continue to get unstinted cooperation from the people.
The support of the people to these strike calls can be gauged from the poor response to various movements against them by some non-governmental organisations and court initiatives. Judicial intervention against such calls started in 1997. when the High Court of Kerala put a ban on "bundhs".
Political parties responded to the court order by replacing "bundh" with "hartal". The Supreme Court had ratified the distinction made by the High Court of Kerala, which held that a "bundh" involved coercion of others into toeing the line of those who called for the bundh, and was unconstitutional since it violated the rights of others. A hartal, on the other hand, was a peaceful act of non-cooperation or was a passive resistance movement and a call for it did not involve coercion of a person who did not want to join the hartal.
Once it became clear that political parties were indulging in semantics, numerous orders were passed by both the Supreme Court and the High Court of Kerala against forcible hartals. They have had no effect on their organisers, who continue to paralyse the state over a range of causes from the trivial issues (a lesson in a school book) to the global (the war on Iraq, Israel's occupation of Gaza).
Campaigns against hartals by about half a dozen outfits such as the Anti-Hartal Front", "The Proper Channel" and "Say No to Hartal", have failed to take off. Efforts by "Say No to Hartal" to create a fleet of vehicles to be rolled out during strikes to transport stranded people to their destinations have elicited a response from only 170 vehicle owners in the last four years.
Raju P Nair, who heads the forum, said that only about 30 out of these vehicle owners actually come forward on the hartal days. Similarly, the legal assistance offered by the forum to people affected by hartals to claim compensation for losses has had no takers.
"We received only three inquiries after we launched the scheme a couple of years ago," Nair said. "Shockingly none of the three wanted to pursue the case."
The latest attempt by the Congress-led United Democratic Front government to enact a law to restrict hartals has also not struck any chord with people of the state. A little over 34,000 people have responded to the proposal announced by Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala on his Facebook page.
The government made the decision after industry bodies cited the hartal as a major deterrent to investments. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said that investors were keeping away from the state only because of the fear of strikes.
A study by the Confederation of Indian Industry showed that a successful state-wide hartal on a day causes a loss of Rs 900 crores to the state. This does not include the losses suffered by the agricultural sector, which accounts for a sizable chunk of foreign exchange earnings from exports.
The opportunity loss caused by these hartals is also colossal. Experts attribute the state's industrial backwardness and high migration to the culture of agitation. Chandy said that investors had previously been concerned about militant trade unionism in the state.
"Trade unions have realised that they cannot survive without industrial development and have mended their ways," Chandy said. "But hartals have put this gain to a naught. The single biggest hindrance to prospective investors in the state today is the hartal."
Whenever there is an unusually large queue before liquor outlets in Kerala, it can be safely guessed that the next day is either an official dry day or a shutdown strike has been announced.
Posted by: Pramod Agrawal <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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