07/05/2010, 00.00
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General strikes bring parts of India to a halt

Millions of Indians protest fuel price hikes. Turnout is greatest in states governed by opposition parties. Government justifies price rise by need to cut subsidies and invest in infrastructural development, like New Delhi’s new terminal.
Mumbai (AsiaNews/Agencies) – People have responded in great numbers to the opposition’s call for a general strike against the Union government’s decision to raise fuel prices. The states of West Bengal and Kerala and Bihar were worst affected. However, everywhere schools closed, public transit was barely functioning and many shops and businesses simply shut.

In Communist-run Kerala, roads were almost entirely deserted. In Bangalore, home to 1,500 info-tech companies and capital of the BJP-ruled state of Karnataka, nothing moved.

In the country’s financial hub of Mumbai, taxis went also on strike. Few white-collar workers made it to work today, partly because of the transit stoppage.

Although at different ends of the political spectrum, India’s Communist Parties and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organised their own work stoppage, each claiming success. Parties from the ruling coalition government have challenged opposition claims.

In many other states and cities, the strike barely registered. This was the case in the Union capital, New Delhi, and in Chennai, where public transit, shops and schools went about their business as usual.

For years, India has had a policy of public subsidies for fuels, sometimes sold below cost. However, last month, the government decided to slash price support to reduce its budget deficit, which this year is forecast to reach 5.5 per cent of GDP.

Without the subsidies, inflation is expected to rise by a full percentage point.

The Indian government is caught between the need to build the necessary infrastructure for quick economic development and fight widespread poverty.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated a new terminal at New Delhi airport that will double its capacity and ease travel.

The facility, which will begin handling international flights on 14 July, will boost the airport’s total capacity to 60 million passengers a year, up from 27.

Along with other renovations, the construction of Terminal 3 cost about US$ 2.7 billion.

Indian air travel has risen at an average rate of 8.5 percent annually over the past five years.

Experts note that the new structure is not only essential for passenger travel but also for the country’s image.

For Indian decision-makers, it is essential the new airport be comparable with other Asian sites, like Dubai, which handled 40.9 million passengers last year, and Singapore, which moved 37.2.

The authorities are also proud that the new facility was completed in only 37 months compared with the 45 months it took China to build the terminal that opened in Beijing ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

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