By Rajiv Theodore
New Delhi, Dec. 27, 2018: It seems that Kerala is one hell of a tinderbox waiting for that spark to trigger a raging strike, earning the state yet another sobriquet—Hartals Own Country.
The reason could be just anything—from Saddam Hussein being sentenced to death or opposing a US president’s visit to India or an obscure murder or even an isolated case of immolation. Looking back there were 223 hartals in 2006 which had hit the finances of the state by a huge 20 billion rupees.
Cut to 2018, there were 97 hartals till the last count and 121 in 2017. According to estimates each hartal shaves of 2 billion rupees —hitting mainly the tourism sector, the backbone of the state economy. But the figures of the losses to the exchequer is even higher according to V. Venugopal, president of the Cochin Chambers of Commerce. He explains that if a hartal is considered 100 percent successful the state takes a 9-billion dive from its overall 7,760 billion rupee GDP figures.
Also, a 100 percent success rate means that the economy comes to a grinding halt—delays in shipment and transportation, supply chain interruption and damages to the inventory. The tourism sector, a key revenue generators too bleeds from the impact.
The concept of the strike, which was earlier called bandh, was banned way back in 1997 by a full bench of the Kerala High Court and the Left front’s plea to reverse the order was shot down by the Supreme Court.
Today, ‘Bandhs’ are simply called ‘Hartals’ and it seems there is hardly any impact or a let down on the alacrity with which the state goes into the strike mode. In 2000, the Kerala high court ruled that the enforcement of a hartal by “force, intimidation – physical or mental – and coercion” was unconstitutional.
In 2015, Venugopal had said, “The previous the Congress-led government introduced the Hartal Regulation Bill. The Bill was sent to a Select Committee for consideration but has not seen the light of day since then.” According to the 2017 issue of the Economic Review brought out by the State Planning Board, Thiruvananthapuram, 85,000 person-days were lost due to strikes in Kerala in the financial year 2017 (up to July), as against 268,000 in the year up to July 2013.
But there is a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon. More than 35 trade organizations in Kerala came together recently to announce that 2019 will be ‘anti-hartal year’. “There were 97 hartals. The traders, hoteliers, bus owners and other establishments were facing a loss of millions of rupees due to such flash hartals,” Kerala Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samiti state president T. Nasarudheen said.
”We want all the political parties to co-operate with us. Even a minister had said the political parties need to find an alternative to such flash strike calls,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Kerala Tourism Task Force, an initiative of Kerala Travel Mart (KTM) said the tourism industry will safeguard its interests and protest against such strikes. A joint meeting of 28 organizations belonging to the tourism sector jointly passed a six-point resolution to ensure that services of the tourism industry is not hit due to shut downs. The forum also made it clear that they will not participate in the nation- wide strike which is to be held on January 8 and 9, 2019.
KTM President Baby Mathew said, “Though we are not opposing a person’s right to disagree, we will refrain ourselves away from the enforced hartal. Tourism is the most affected industry during Nipah virus outbreak and floods, but we withstood it. Hartal is a man- made disaster which we will object.”
The task force will also take steps to file cases for heavy compensation to those who announce hartals and creating troubles to the industry with clear evidence, photo, and recordings. The 28 organizations have unanimously adopted the six-point resolution to tackle the menace of hartal, said Abraham George, former president KTM.
“The Task Force will discuss the resolution with various organizations within the state to create awareness of the socio-economic stigma created by hartal.”
A resolution adopted by the meeting demanded the Government to provide police protection for the safety and security of tourists and tourism sector and uninterrupted functioning of institutions and services during hartals.
But as of now, strikes continue to be part of Kerala psyche. This month about 50,000 domestic and foreign tourists were trapped indoors when the BJP called a statewide shutdown. Around 2,500 foreign tourists, mostly from the UK and Germany who arrived in the state by a chartered flight and four cruise ships were left in the lurch when Kochi was desolated by the strike.