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Kerala: Hartals Own Country?

July 06, 2008 15:55 IST

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Kerala [Images], it seems, is celebrating hartals. If a hartal is called by any outfit � regardless of its political clout-- Malayalees love being at home, watching television channels, which sometimes beam special programmes.

Staging over a 100 hartals annually in recent times, causing loss of hundreds of crores of rupees to the state exchequer, Kerala has earned the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country where shutdown calls by any political party will be a sure success.

That the BJP, a less-dominant political force in the state, has called the most number of hartals in recent past -- 31 of a total 57 this year alone -- gives a clear indication of the fact that the protests in this parts do not necessarily require mass support.

 The people of the 'most-literate' state are so scared of hartal-related violence that they mostly remain indoors, indirectly helping the cause of the hartal observers.

The real beneficiaries, if any, are the state-run shops, where liquor is sold at nominal rates compared to licensed bars, and the mutton stalls which in particular witness roaring business on pre-hartal days.

Ironically, it is the Kerala High Court which banned bandhs for the first time in the country in 1997, which was later upheld by the Supreme Court also.

 But after the court refused to stay hartals in 2004, the political parties are enforcing virtually bandhs in the name of hartals as normal life is always thrown out of gear during every such occasion.

 A handful of NGOs have recently come forward to create public awareness on the ill-effects of observing hartals but they are also handicapped by the fact that the affected do not get any compensation in case of damage to property or life.

"We are doing everything to create awareness, but there is little legal remedy in case of damage to property or life, so the public do not dare to venture out on a protest day," says Haridas, president of 'The Proper Channel', an NGO.

Registered under the Charitable Act in 2005, the NGO has been fighting for the cause relentlessly, moving a series of petitions against hartals that do not conform to the court directive.

Upholding the fundamental right to organise hartals, the high court in 2004 had, however, asked government to strictly adhere to a nine-point directive that include ensuring normal life and transport, protection to properties and lives and compensation from hartal organisers in case of damage.

Though most hartals have resulted in serious damage and in some case even loss of lives, the affected parties had not approached the court for compensation fearing 'backlash' from the organisers.

"Since court directives alone do not help the cause, we are approaching various quarters including the media to put an end to this form of protests," K Chandrababu, general secretary of the Anti-Hartal Front, a state-wide association based in Kannur, said.

"When Saddam Hussain was sentenced to death, there was a hartal in the state and opposing the US President's visit to India, the CPI (ML) has staged a near-total hartal here," he said.

A total of 223 hartals were observed in 2006, resulting in a revenue loss of over Rs 2000 crore, he added.

The state-owned transport always happens to be the first target for the agitators as that keeps the public  movement in total check, Haridas said.
"While the KSRTC suffered about Rs 10 crore loss in 2006, it was 8.75 crore last year," he said.

During a day-long hartal called to protest a murder during the Chavakkad municipal chairman polls in 2006, public property to the tune of Rs 1.10 crore was destroyed in Thrissur, he said.

The NGOs have adopted a novel method to ease the public pressure by sending SMS messages to hartal organisers.

"We call upon prominent personalities to send messages so that the public confidence is lifted," Chandrababu said, adding they were also in touch with several humanist movements and Gandhian organisations to take up the cause more effectively.

"Dr Vasudevan, who was seriously injured in stone-pelting during a hartal here five years ago is still under treatment," T K A Aziz of the Anti-Hartal Front said.

Merchants' Associations, representing traders across the sate, who were vehemently opposing hartals earlier had also fallen in line with political parties in giving hartal calls seeking redressal to their problems, he said.

Kozhikode-based Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi, the leading traders body in the state, had given a shutdown call next week to protest the 'growing influence' of MNC's.

Though state-wide hartals are relatively less in number, local-level hartals have become the order of the day with a least one hartal called on an average in a panchayat in a week.

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