Strikes in India – How It Impacts Life, Work

Posted On: April 6, 2017

Strikes in India, as in other places, happen mostly due to political reasons. Sometimes political parties cause drama, or particular events get politicized causing panic or outrage. Sometimes the public transport workers (bus drivers, auto drivers, taxi drivers, others) go on strike to try to get higher wages or for other reasons. Sometimes, the strike happens out of support to an injustice that happened to a person or a group of people, as in the strike that happened today, April 4, 2016 in Kerala, India.

Nalae Harthal - Strike Today - Sign in Malayalam

When do you know there is a strike? 
Normally, the government or media reports it the day before. In rare cases, I have experienced a strike being called on the spot (This happened only once in the six years I have been in India. I will talk about that more below.)

Reasons for strikes/types of strikes: 
Dawn-to-dusk hartal in Kerala today, Nov. 26, 2016 (Demonitisation)
Private bus strike, Jan. 24, 2017 
Uber, Ola call a 24 hour strike, Feb. 24, 2017 
Nationwide Bank Strike, Feb. 28, 2017  
Nationwide Chemist Strike (against online sales), May 30, 2017 
What is the word for strike in Indian languages? 

Aaj Harthal - Strike Today - Sign in Hindi

India has 22 scheduled languages. Where I live in Kerala, the language is Malayalam. The Malayalam word for strike is ‘hartal.’ That is spelled in Malayalam in the red image in this post. Hindi, pictured to the right, is one of the most common languages of India, found all over north India and parts of South India. The Hindi word for strike is bandh or band. This is actually pronounced as bund (If you are an American don’t say band- as in rubber band or hard rock band, the a is pronounced as an uh as in the word bun. So, bun + d = band or bandh! This is some accent reduction tips for Americans coming to India!) 

The other two images in this post have the Hindi spelling and script for band/bandh or strike. As you can see even Malayalam and Hindi have two different scripts. Most regional languages in India have different scripts. 

What happens during a strike? 
In most cases, all public transport, such as buses, autos, taxis and others are not operating. In some cases, even company transports do not operate. In rarer cases, hotel transports also do not work. This means that attendance in the office will be low; in some cases, as low as 45% (source: Times of India). Note that depending on they type of strike, the times the public transport are halted are different. For example, most of the time, the time is posted as 6am to 6pm. In rare cases, it’s a 24 hour strike (the Jan. 24, 2017 strike above was a 24 hour strike that applied only to private buses). 

Learn more about ground commute options in India in the video below.

What if the strike is on a working day? How can I go to work? 
This becomes tricky. And, it’s rare that a strike happens on an off day. Often people that own their own cars may venture out, even in some cases those on bikes (motorcycles) still go to work, too. Some may work from home or take leave on that day (depending on their company policy). Sometimes some office parks, like Infopark (where Authentic Journeys has an office), provide a police escort. Arranged a particular areas of the city, these escorts help people to travel safely to work. I also talk more about that in the video in this post.

What if I am a foreigner visiting India, what about me, how do I stay safe? 

Bharat Band - All India Strike

If you are coming to India for work, talk to your Indian counterparts about how to come to the office or if you should come to the office. In some cases, you may be able to take hotel transport to the office, or maybe your Indian counterpart can pick you up. It depends. 

If you are a tourist visiting Kerala during a strike, it’s best to talk to your hotel staff and ask them about what they advise. Though it’s rare that foreigners face any difficulty during a strike, it’s best to stay safe by staying inside your hotel on that day in many cases, is my thought. 

How do I get to the airport on a strike day? 
This is a bit confusing. If you are staying at a 5-star hotel, I am sure they will try their level best to work it out for you. I am not sure about 4-star and below hotels. The problem is that in some cases, the media and/or the government recommend that anyone who is flying or needs to be at the airport during strike hours arrive to the airport before the strike starts. So, even if your flight is at 1pm, and the strike starts at 6:30am, leave your house or hotel much before 6:30 so that your cab is not on the road at 6:30am. I had a friend in Bangalore (Indian citizen), who had to take a flight from the Bangalore airport at 1pm. Anyone who knows the Bangalore airport knows how far away from the city it is. She said she called her cab at 4am so she could get to the airport by 5:30-6 which also allowed her cab driver to get back home and off the roads before the strike started at 6:30am. She also mentioned she never saw so many cabs going and coming from the airport at such an ungodly hour! 

Another idea to assure you get to the airport on time is to stay over night at a hotel by the airport the night before to avoid any traffic jams or time constraints in getting to the airport on time. 

In my understanding, flights are not constrained by strikes. Flights will continue at their scheduled time. So, assure you get to the airport before the strike starts to avoid any problems in reaching the airport on time.

Which areas are impacted by the strike? 
Rarely do national strikes happen. However, once when I was traveling for work in India, I was in Bangalore when a national strike was called. Back in September 2014, when this national strike happened, I made the video below. In most of the strikes referred to in this article, they were confined to the state of Kerala or areas of Kerala. Likewise, depending on the political situation in various parts of India, strikes happen for various reasons, and are local to that area. For example, the Cauvery water bandh in Sept. 2016 was also coupled with Kannadiga nationalism protests, making the roads even unsafer for non-Kannada speaking people on that day, the multi-day (if I remember correctly, almost one week) bandh in Hyderabad as a precursor to dividing Andhra Pradesh into two states, or the water tanker strike in March 2017 in Chennai that threatened IT business to halt.

Who is Impacted by the Strike? 
Ordinary people are impacted. Depending on the nature of the strike certain businesses will close. Some years ago in Kochi, there was a restaurant strike. I believe that happened on a Saturday, because we were out and there was no place to go out and eat as everything was shut down! There are also bank strikes, which close banks and banking activity is also halted. I am not sure if both government and private banks shut for the bank strikes, or it depends on the nature of the strike. And, as noted in this post, there are different kinds of public transport strikes (auto strikes, private bus, public bus, taxi strikes, etc.). 

Additionally, as schools, universities and colleges tend to close on strike days, if school kids had exams, all exams will be postponed until further notice. This is what I have typically seen in my six years living in Kerala. However, there are exceptions such as during a recent truckers strike in Maharashtra (in image below, courtesy the Hindustan TImes). 

Strike Impact India

Other Trivia or Information about Strikes 
Though most people detest strikes, many still do stay home. At the same time, others protest against strikes by coming to work anyway and trying to live as normal as possible. There are even groups and Facebook pages dedicated to the No Strike/ No Harthal movement. 

Some use the hartal to organize hartal bike rides or post on special hartal snacks and treats (as they are at home, more time to cook, I guess!). 

You may wonder what rights pertain to you during a strike, someone has written a little about that here.

My Experiences During Strikes 
I can’t count how many strikes I have experienced while living in Kerala. I do remember the first strike I ever experienced in India. That was in Chennai in 1999. That day I fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital.  We had debated if I should be taken or not as there was a halt on road traffic. But, eventually, I had to go (or I wouldn’t be telling this story!). It was amazing to see roads in India so empty. In the U.S., we don’t think twice to see empty roads. But seeing empty roads in the day time in India, where everything is eerily quiet, is unnerving to say the least. 

So, yes, if you are a foreigner in India and you wake up one fine morning and you hear pin drop silence it only means one thing. A strike!! 

Most of the strikes I have lived through in Kerala forced” me not to go to work and stay home. Training programs were canceled or client visits postponed. Most of the time, things get pushed to the next day or next week. In rare cases, as in the video, I talked about how the session still went on. This only happened twice, once in Bangalore and once in Trivandrum. This was because the companies were sponsoring my travel and couldn‘t extend my stay or reschedule the events. In both cases, I got to work by private transport without incident. 

There was one other strike that happened spontaneously. We had a training program scheduled in Infopark on a normal working day. The time was between 9am- 6pm. I was ready at 9. I was allowed in to the office and training room only by 9:30 as no one else was there. When the employee showed up at 9:30 to let me in, she apologized and said there was some traffic block in Kakkanad, but did not know why. By 10, a few of the 25 people showed up. One of them mentioned they heard the traffic block was started by some political party for reasons I did not understand, and it was totally haphazard and by surprise. The cars and vehicles were so heavily gridlocked, some mentioned bus passengers would just get out of the bus and start walking to the next bus stop. Of course, most of the people in my session were driving their own cars to work, and were unable to get out of their cars and walk! That being said, an official strike was called somewhere around 10-10:30. Some who were in that traffic jam, went home, and a few came in. Of the 25, about 10 came To assure all the team members were trained, I agreed to come in on another day to work with the remaining team members who couldn’t show up on that strike day. 

Have you experienced a strike in Kerala or in India as a foreigner, a tourist or as an expat business person? Share your experiences below. Eager to hear your stories and feedback about this article.

Jennifer Kumar, author of this post helps teams in different parts of India to work more effectively with US clients through creating communication strategies that build global teams. Contact us to get started. 



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