Bright red flags will catch the attention of anyone searching for information on the country-wide general strike sweeping India. About 150-million people are participating in the strike, the largest strike to date, according to The Morning Star, a British publication.
Hannah John, a first-year student at St. Thomas University, said the trade union strike isn’t unusual. General strikes, occur a couple times per year and always impact on public life, she said.
“In every major Indian city, there have been people coming in for this and the amount of people actually participating is remarkable,” said John.
From Kochi, Kerala in India, John is passionate about the strike because of her close relationship with the Indian government. Her mother was the joint director of vigilance for the co-operative sector the government of Kerala, which aims to prevent corruption. Her father was the development officer of New India Assurance.
John said strikers are mostly public transportation workers, insurance workers and bank employees.
“Normally, the government promises to do something at that particular point in time and they won’t actually go through with it, which will then make another strike happen. You can see, it’s like a cycle.”
John said this specific strike is in direct conflict with Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, who’s been in power since 2014.
Modi demonetized all 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes in 2016, replacing them with new banknotes in exchange for the now-defunct bills.
“He did the demonetization because he wanted to cut out the [counterfeit] money and illegal activities, but it was not really planned. He had good intentions, I would agree, but he did not really carry it out the way he wanted to,” said John.
She recalls experiencing this.
“People didn’t even have money the day after this happened, the ATM’s weren’t prepared for it and the banks weren’t prepared for it.”
She said this has had an effect on both the economy and morale of the people.
“In one night, the money we had in our pockets had become nothing, had become just paper and there was not a thing for people to do,” she said.
“The transition was really rough for everyone because nobody could actually get the money that they wanted to and he wanted to transfer us to a [cashless] economy, but India is still a cash-using economy.”
Remembering the weekly large markets in India is easy for John. They’re entirely based on cash transactions and this lack of access to physical money hugely affected the local economy and daily life.
“That’s why the strike initially happened. It happened as a result of Modi doing demonetization and so the public sector cut back significantly on employees because they couldn’t manage the money that they lost during that transition period and also because of disinvestment.”
She said foreign money flows in due to demonetized public sector companies seeking foreign investment and it can be disruptive.
“You can see the height of the problem if people from all over India, from Kolkata, from Bangalore, from my city Kerala, from Delhi, Mumbai, all of these big and small cities in India,” she said.
“All of them come together for this cause and you can see how large their problems must be for them to assemble on such a large scale like this.”