Last week was one of double jeopardy for the people of Kerala. On Wednesday the Government of India, after long deliberations, raised the prices of petroleum products, placing a huge burden on them. The next day the Left Democratic Front, which is ruling the State, and the Bharatiya Janata Party organised separate but simultaneous hartal (work stoppage), putting an additional burden on them.
Ironically, on hartal day, activists of the parties that call the strike do not stay away from work. Actually, on that day they work harder than ever. They leave home earlier than usual and go around making sure that no one goes to work defying the party fiat.
Among those who stayed away from office on Wednesday, responding to the LDF's strike call, were the State's ministers. They also reportedly advised members of their staff not to report for work.
Transport Minister Mathew T.Thomas used the enforced holiday to pay a courtesy visit to his neighbour, Health Minister PK Sreemathy. His wife and children joined him on the outing. They did not use their government car for the trip. Television cameras followed them as they walked to Sreemathy's official residence.
The strike was from 6 am to 6 pm. Official functions scheduled for the day were either cancelled or put off until after hartal hours.
Co-operation Minister G. Sudhakaran, who was due to attend a public function at Kayamkulam, went from his official residence to the railway station on a borrowed bicycle and boarded a train.
The unwritten hartal code bars the use of motor cars and auto-rickshaws, but not two-wheelers and trains.
The petrol price hike has come when the country is experiencing mounting inflation. Last week the inflation rate rose to 8.24 per cent. Financial analysts expect the rising fuel costs to push it further - probably up to 9.5%.
As a consumer State which depends upon other States for most of its needs, Kerala is in a highly vulnerable to price fluctuations. Generally, commodity prices rule higher in the State than elsewhere. According to official figures, last year the consumer price index for agricultural workers in the State rose by 8.99% as against the national average of 7.63%.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the LDF, is the leading member of the Left Front, which supports the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre from outside. It strongly disapproved of the petrol price hike, saying it was substantial and would push up the price of food and other essential commodities.
Even before the week ended, truck operators in the State announced an increase in hire charges to cover the hike in petrol and diesel prices. Their organisation had consulted industry unions before deciding on the increase.
Most of the workers in the transport industry are under the CPI-M banner. As far as is known, the unions controlled by the party went along with the truck operators' decision without raising any objection.
There is no official estimate of the loss suffered by the State as a result of the week's protests. The chambers of commerce and industry, which usually come up with unofficial estimates, has also remained silent.
Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac had provided more than Rs7 billion in this year's State budget to write off the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation's debts and set it on the path of economic recovery. The increase in diesel prices will hamper its efforts to achieve financial stability.
The KSRTC had suspended most of its services on the day of the strike. As a result, it suffered significant revenue loss. In all likelihood, it will be forced to revise passenger fares.
For the first time, the State Consumer Federation brought rice from West Bengal to meet the food shortage. The rice could not be unloaded from the rail wagons because of the strike. The railways charged the federation demurrages at Rs100 per wagon for every hour of delay.
The BJP did not stop with a day's strike. On Saturday, it organised road blockade at different places in the State. The CPI-M also has plans to stage more protests.
The two parties are sure to keep alive the issue of petrol price hike, which has come to them as a godsend as the nation moves towards the parliamentary elections, due next year. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 9, 2008.