When a Hartal was declared in Kerala on Dec 28,2009 by the BMS (Yes, not too many of us know about it, it is the Sangh Parivar's labour union), the usual cacophony of voices in the media and on many a blog broke out decrying Kerala's "Harthal culture". Many a "Hartal Counter" ticked over and the critics went back to slumber, feeling smug at having done their civic duty. Of course, the usual line would have been "look at Bangalore or Hyderabad, and learn from them", but this time that common refrain was curiously absent or rare.
The usual level of smugness that many non-resident keralites (the "I-work-in-Hyderabad/Bangalore and we don't have hartals here" brigade) was kind of spoilt by the three week long shut down that Hyderabad has been experiencing over the Telengana issue. The poster-child for many of how a city can evolve into an IT hub even when much of the surrounding State continues to languish in abject poverty, Hyderbad's IT industry, the fourth biggest in India, has been almost paralysed as employees could not reach their offices on many days. So much so that many top firms have either put up key staff at hotels near the IT parks or announced holidays altogether. CII's flagship event which had been scheduled at Hyderabad, was shifted helter-skelter to Chennai. And to top it all off, the US has issued a travel advisory against travelling to Andhra Pradesh, which never fails to proudly show-case Microsoft, Google, CSC et al as its top investors.
And if you think the situation south of the border in Bengaluru is any better, you would be very wrong. I just got off the phone with a close friend in India's IT Capital who was telling me that crowds have been going berserk after the death of Kannada film star. The city has got an unwelcome sense of deja vu when the ugly scenes witnessed after the death of another film personality were repeated, almost as if someone was shooting a faithful sequel. Offices and shops were stoned, cars burned and roads blocked. Even more bizarrely, there were suicides over the filmstar's death by cardiac arrest.
My friend told me that posters of the late star have been put up in front of IT parks and malls, in the hope of avoiding a few well aimed stones. Moreover, some buildings have put up nets as a final defense. Apparently, if you don't have a stock of Kannada CDs in your car when you are stopped by a mob, there is a significant risk of having the windscreen bashed in. Cosmopolitan city, indeed!
While I have all respect for the fallen matinee idol and the need for self-determination felt by a section of AP, the point is that it is downright dumb to point out only Kerala as a state of frequent disruptions. Strike actions are prevalent everywhere, most notably in the NCR and Mumbai (the Shiva Sena and the MNS being the star performers, of course!). And it seems even more of a travesty when malayalees single out their own home state for blame.
Over the last few years, the amount of disruption to daily life and industry from strikes have drastically declined in Kerala. In fact, as Dr Thomas Issac pointed out at the India IT Summit 2009 in Trivandrum recently, Kerala experienced fewer man-days lost due to political disruptions than many States which are often show-cased as the champions of industry. Technopark, which is the largest employer in Kerala, experienced zero disruption, which is a lot better than what Electronics City, Whitefield or Gachibowli can claim.
Rather than sitting around and complaining, why not we venture out on a strike day and prove these critics wrong? I was out on Dec 29th, and the last time I checked my head was still where it belongs. No one stoned my car or broke my head. There were plenty of cars and bikes out on Trivandrum's roads. KSRTC did a great job running many of its services (the Volvos stayed off the roads, of course!) and the major institutions like Technopark and VSSC operated as usual. In fact, the German Ambassador to India visited Technopark on the same day and was very impressed by Kerala's IT hub. Trivandrum's a city of 1.5 million people, I am sure a few hundred activists cannot be everywhere at the same time to force a shut down.
The usual response to a Hartal is to kick off our shoes and relax on an un-declared holiday. In Cochin, the best way to realize there was a hartal or general strike the next day was to see long queues in front of the local liquor shop on a week-day evening. And if one's not in Kerala, but in Bengaluru, Dufai or the United States of America, the usual response is a bunch of holier-than-thou criticism of how things back at home have to improve and how the idiots still living in Kerala should learn from other States.
Let's stop all that and see if we can do our bit to make things better. And perhaps, other States will learn this too from us as they have learnt so much!