Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Bandh Season Arrives

October has come and gone, as it does every year. It brought with it the festive season. The City of Joy prepared itself for the celebrations, for with the onset of the cooler season comes the major festivals like Durga Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Kali Puja/ Diwali, Bhaifonta, Jagaddhatri Puja, Kartik Puja, Christmas and... Bandh.

Bandhs, or strikes, are as integral a part of the Kolkata culture as hand-pulled rickshaws, Durga Puja or Rasogollas. The political party calling the bandh may be insignificant, but half the city will come to a standstill. And if the party is influential, then it's a grand affair complete with stone-pelting, bus-burning and on-the-road cricket matches. When my family shifted to Allahabad twenty years ago, we were surprised to find that strikes had no effect in Allahabad. Be the strike be citywide, statewide or countrywide, be it called by the ruling party or the opposition, it never affected our daily life. In the last twenty years, there have been hardly a couple of effective bandhs in Allahabad. Not so with Kolkata. A bandh in Kolkata is always successful.

Years ago, it was the CPI(M) who had started the tradition of calling bandhs. Today, 'bandh' is the favourite word of Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. SUCI, Congress and BJP also join the bandh-wagon whenever they can. In reality, the party ideology does not matter anymore. If the party is working in West Bengal, it will call bandhs. And then there are the bus drivers' union, auto drivers' union, transporters' union and taxi drivers: whoever has any influence in the day to day functioning of the city calls bandhs from time to time. Effects of these bandhs are often terrible. Railway traffic, both suburban and long distance, grinds to a halt. Flights get grounded, and all this means harassment for the poor commuters. The party workers, however, are least bothered. What better way to spend a cold winter day than picnicking on the sunny railway tracks outside the city? This is the primary reason why the bandh season coincides with winter, for holding up trains in the summer heat is not fun (pity they can't do the same with the air conditioned metro railway during the summer days due to that stupid third rail). Another very interesting coincidence is that most bandhs are called on either Fridays or Mondays or adjacent to some other holiday.

With the IT companies flocking into Kolkata since the onset of the new millennium, the state government finally realised how harmful bandhs were to the city's image as an IT destination. Many of the IT companies in the city lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if they have to shut down for a day. The opposition parties did not want to let go of this weapon to embarrass the government, and yet, they did not want to appear anti-progress to the people. So the current trend is calling a bandh such that the IT industry is exempt from it. However, that is just a stupid lie meant to fool the people. How are the IT professionals supposed to come to work if the buses, trains, taxis and autos are not exempt from the bandh? Ideally, the party workers are supposed to let cars pass if they are carrying IT professionals. In reality, they often attack IT company vehicles, and if they are very non violent, they at least deflate all the tires. So much for the 'exemption'.

The winter of 2007 looks quite promising as the issues of Singur and Nandigram don't seem to be settling down any time soon. Last week we had two bandhs, and this week one which was supposed to be 'indefinite' (Ms. Banerjee always bites off more than she can chew). The indefinite one lasted 24 hours and had to be hurriedly withdrawn sensing the irritation of the people. But during those 24 hours Kolkata was paralysed. Some IT companies had declared a holiday and some had temporarily shifted their operations out of the city. Point to be noted: this bandh was called on the Monday after the three-day Diwali weekend.

I am not saying what happened in Nandigram was right. But there are other ways of protesting than immobilising the city. People can protest by creating awareness through writings and peaceful demonstrations. The opposition parties, if they are looking for a solution to the problem (which they are not, by the way) should try to solve it through discussions with the government. Everybody should remember, preventing people from working cannot be an acceptable practice in any civilised society and especially in West Bengal since the state is already infamous. If this practice is not stopped soon, the working people will leave for places where they are allowed to work in a better unhindered way.

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