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.
Such strikes called by anybody for any cause is an occasion for celebration for Keralites. They stay at home and celebrate by eating, drinking and watching 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.
The extra sale of liquor on the day before the strike ranges between Rs 3 crore to Rs.5 crore, 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 crore.
The corporation’s average sale on a normal day in the state with a population of little above three crore is worth Rs 15 crore. Similarly the meat merchants also record an increase of 30% to 40% in sales on the day before the strike.
The salaried class, especially the government employees, like the strike the most as they get their salary even if they do not go to work. Though it hurts agricultural workers and other daily wage earners, their number in Kerala is shrinking year after year due to the growing aversion among “educated” Keralites towards manual jobs.
Almost every Keralite seems to love a good shutdown strike. There is no dearth of such shutdowns as the state witnesses about 100 strikes, including regional ones, a year. The people are doubly happy if it falls just before or after a weekend. Chances for the same are plenty as political parties, trade unions, social and religious organisations and even farmers and traders bodies see these shutdowns as an answer to all their ills.
These shutdowns have become the favourite form of protest in the state since organising them does not need much preparation, unlike other protests that need a lot of effort to mobilise public support for success. An anti-shutdown activist says all it needs to make it a success is a press statement and a few musclemen.
The role of musclemen has come down drastically now as the state automatically switches to a shutdown mode after a strike is called. Earlier, the musclemen needed to go around and block roads and force shops and offices to close. Now the vehicles go off roads and shops and commercial establishments down 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 Bundhs
It was believed that people preferred to stay indoors on the day of such strikes because of violence. Though violent incidents have come down drastically after the courts came down heavily against forceful enforcement of shutdowns, hartals continue to get the 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 spearheaded by some non-governmental organisations and court initiatives. Judicial intervention against such calls affecting normal life of people started way back in 1997 when the Kerala high court put a ban on “bundhs”.
The 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 that act was unconstitutional since it violated the rights of others. This court proceeded on the basis that a hartal 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 into compulsorily participating in the hartal.
But once it became clear that the parties were just indulging in semantics, numerous orders passed by both Supreme Court and high court against forcible hartals since then have had no effect on their callers, who continue to paralyse the state by making such calls for a range of causes from trivial issues such as a lesson in a school book to global issues such as global fuel price hike, war on Iraq, Israel’s occupation of Gaza, etcetera.
Campaigns against hartal by about half a dozen outfits like “Anti-Hartal Front”, “The Proper Channel” and “Say No to Hartal” failed to take off for want of support from the people. The effort by “Say No to Hartal” to create a fleet of vehicles to be rolled out on the days of hartal to transport stranded people to their destinations has got 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 actually come forward to take out their vehicles on the hartal days. Similarly the legal assistance the forum offered to the people affected by hartal to claim compensation for the loss has had no takers.
“We received only three inquiries after we launched the scheme a couple of years ago. Shockingly none of the three wanted to pursue the case,” Raju said, adding that people may be afraid to come forward fearing reprisal.
The latest attempt by the Congress-led United Democratic Front government to enact a law to restrict the hartals has also not struck any chord with the people. Only a little more than 34,000 people have responded to the proposal announced by Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala on his Facebook page.
The government took the initiative after industry bodies cited hartal as a major deterrent to investments. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said that investors were keeping away from the state despite several positive factors only because of the fear of hartal.
A study by the Confederation of Indian Industry showed that a successful state-wide hartal on a day caused a loss of Rs 900 crore to the state. This does not include the loss suffered by the agricultural sector that accounts for a sizeable 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 the high migration to the culture of agitation prevailing in the state. Chandy said that the investors were earlier concerned about the 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.”