The state’s industrial backwardness has a lot to do with the endless strikes that have paralyzed it. But the people there are ok with it
By TK Devasia
Angel Shaji, a Class II student in Palakkad, checks the newspaper every day before he goes to school. He wants to know if there is a hartal (strike) that day. He need not try too hard; most Kerala dailies carry hartal calls prominently on their front pages. His father, Shaji George, a lawyer, says Angel is happy when there is a hartal as authorities then, declare a holiday for all educational institutions. With Kerala witnessing at least 100 hartals at the state, district and local levels annually (5-10 are at the state level), it is a merry time for students.
Interestingly, so attuned have students become to hartals that some like Angel have developed an aversion to going to school. Once, Angel even proposed to his father that he transfer him to a school in Alappuzha. Being part of the backwaters, this area often gets flooded, leading to additional holidays. Unfortunately, this has led to a steady fall in working days in educational institutions.Though the minimum number of instructional days prescribed under the Kerala Education Rules is 220, the current average at the primary level is 196 and at the upper primary, 194.
But what is surprising is that these hartals are liked even by the general population. People stay at home and celebrate by eating, drinking and watching television, as channels beam special programmes during hartals. Salaried people are especially happy if the hartal falls before or after a weekend. Even businesses aren’t complaining, as liquor shops, fish and poultry outlets do brisk business a day before the hartal. Outlets of Kerala State Beverages Corporation see an increase in sales between `3 crore to `5 crore. Nothing seems better than drinking in the salubrious environs of God’s Own Country.
Incidentally, calls for hartal come from political parties, trade unions, religious and social organizations, student bodies and even farmers’ organizations. Earlier, while hartals were called mostly over issues concerning the people, nowadays, they are over events which the state has no control over. For example, Kerala observed a hartal when former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was executed. The state also remained shut when George Bush visited India as US president.
The joy with which hartals are received makes the task easy for those who call it. An anti-hartal activist in Kochi says that all it takes to bring a state with a population of 3.1 crore to a standstill is a press statement and a few musclemen. Though government offices and commercial establishments like banks and industrial units remain open, they don’t mind if employees skip work. And many of them do, citing absence of public transport.
With so much support from people, it’s not surprising that court orders have had little effect on the outfits calling for the strike. It was way back in 1997 that the Kerala High Court (HC) acted against forced bandhs (total shutdown). The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court (SC) in 1998. When hartals started replacing bandhs, the HC stuck again in 2000 and banned them too. In 2002, the SC went a step further and declared all forced hartals illegal. Further, in 2006, the Kerala HC asked the Election Commission to deregister political parties calling for forced hartals and made those damaging property pay for it. In July this year, the HC mooted legislation for constituting an authority to assess compen-sation and recover it.
NO STOPPING THEM
Judicial intervention was supplemented by sustained campaigns by half-a-dozen outfits, including the “Anti-Hartal Front”, “The Proper Channel” and “Say No To Hartal”. But this has neither discouraged hartals, nor encouraged victims to rise against it.
Ironically, those who are fighting against hartals have themselves resorted to strikes to negotiate their demands. The Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi, on whose petition the HC banned forced hartals in 2000, has called more than a dozen strikes, the last being on August 20 to protest alleged harassment of shopkeepers by commercial tax officials.
Raju P Nair, who heads the “Say No to Hartal” campaign, says political parties and other outfits were enforcing hartals in violation of court orders because law enforcement agencies were lax. After all, the political parties which call hartals are their masters.
Worse, the attitude of ordinary people to hartals has been apathetic. NGOs who have been trying to build resistance against hartals for the last two decades are often disgusted with the lukewarm response they have got.
K Chandrababu, general secretary of the Kannur-based “Anti-Hartal Front”, says that while people who suffered financial losses due to hartals were cooperating out of fear, common people who were indirectly hit were not an organized lot. Attempts to bring them on a common platform have not been successful.
The “Say No To Hartal” forum tried to create a fleet of vehicles to provide transport to stranded people on hartal days, but out of 170 vehicle owners who registered over the last four years, only 30 have actually worked out, says Raju. “There were days when people reacted against injustice. But today’s Malayalee reacts only when something happens to him,” rues Raju.
Also, this laid-back attitude has made people averse to taking risks. Even though the HC has provided for compensation to those who suffer losses due to hartals, very few have come
forward to claim it, says Raju. This is what happened on September 2, when a hartal organized by the BJP to protest the murder of one of its leaders in Kannur led to widespread destruction of property. “We had announced a four-member committee of lawyers to provide legal help to those affected. But we got only three inquiries and none of them was willing to pursue the matter. They said they were not interested,” Raju says.
One of the reasons for this disinterest is that people do not want to fight cases against political outfits due to fear of a backlash. Curi-ously, even government bodies are reluctant to move against political parties. The Kerala Metro Rail Corporation did not seek compensation for the `1 crore it suffered during a recent hartal called by the CPM.
Though Raju’s forum moved the HC with a PIL, a bench refused to entertain the petition, saying it had already passed orders in this regard and that it was up to the executive to ensure the compensation. Raju is now planning to file a contempt-of-court petition against the government for not following the HC order. He believes that outfits calling for hartals will be careful not to cause damage to the public and private property if they are made to pay for it.
The loss to Kerala’s economy when a hartal is 100 percent successful, is Rs. 900 crore a day, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). CII’s estimate does not cover the agricultural sector, which includes sizeable amount of exports. The net result of the state being in a state of perpetual agitation is industrial backwardness, mounting unemployment and high migration. Investors have been driven away to neighboring states and Gulf countries, while the state government’s attempt to regain industrial robustness by making effective use of tourism and sunrise sectors like information technology too have been marred by hartals.
The strange thing is that a majority of the hartals do not achieve what the organizers set out to. The maximum number was over hikes in prices of commodities, especially fuel. Chandrababu says that no government has ever rolled back a hike due to a hartal. They only serve the cause of the hartal callers and dissuade people from productive work.
He said an alternative form of protest is possible. The “Anti-Hartal Front” demons-trated a model hartal in Kannur recently
without affecting life, where people protested by carrying black flags and sending mass petitions to authorities.
While most political parties say this non-violent form of agitation was also used by Mahatma Gandhi, it is usually violence or the fear of it that ensures its success. KE Mammen, a noted Gandhian, says that hartals are nothing but a misuse of power by politicians, who are used to a life of luxury. It can be prevented only if people come out and vote political parties out of power.
Though many political leaders say that hartals have lost their relevance, they are not ready to come out against it. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor terms it immoral, while the state’s home minister Ramesh Chennithala has termed it an archaic form of agitation.
But these are empty words. What the state needs is action to back it.