India: Opposition parties stage protests against high fuel prices

New Delhi, India – Schools and colleges were shut, roads and highways blocked and businesses shuttered in parts of India on Monday as over 20 opposition parties participated in “Bharat Bandh” (nationwide strike) against a sharp increase in fuel prices.

Protests in eastern Bihar state turned violent in the capital, Patna, where vehicles were vandalised while highways were blocked by burning tyres in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

Protests have been reported in the states of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and northeastern state of Assam, where train services were disrupted.

At least 100 supporters of the opposition Congress party were arrested in the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh where the state police has said protesters were unruly. In Udupi city in Karnataka, state police imposed prohibitory orders till 6pm local time after clashes.

Leader of the main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his silence on the issue.

Rahul Gandhi, left, during a protest against record high petrol and diesel prices in New Delhi [Adnan Abid/Reuters]

“Narendra Modi ji is silent, he has not spoken a word on rising prices of fuel, or condition of farmers, neither on atrocities against women,” Gandhi said while addressing protesters in New Delhi.

At least 22 political parties have held united protests criticising the government for failing to rein in rising fuel prices, a politically-sensitive issue. These are the first signs of a joint political campaign by the opposition with the country going to the general elections in less than nine months.

In the capital, New Delhi, petrol prices are up about 14 percent this year. In the financial hub of Mumbai petrol price has surged to $1.21 (88 rupees) per litre.

Prices vary across Indian states but most cities are reeling from petrol prices as high as over 80 rupees ($1.1).

‘Mass protest of the common people’

Fuel prices have been hiked almost daily across India over the past few weeks. India, the third biggest oil importer that buys about 80 percent of its oil needs, is more vulnerable to higher global oil prices.

Brent crude oil price rose to $77.77 per barrel in August from its 2016 lows of under $30 per barrel.

Left leader Sitaram Yechury, who marched with protesters in New Delhi, called it “economic violence” by the government.

“It’s a mass protest of the common people. The prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas are sky high, the rupee is on a nosedive and the government is in the lap of big corporates, so the people have to come out on the streets to raise their voice,” left leader Dipankar Bhattacharya, told Al Jazeera.

Police detain a protester during the nationwide strike against rising fuel prices in Ahmedabad, Gujarat [Amit Dave/Reuters]

“The issue of price rise and big-ticket corruption catapulted Modi to power, now it’s boomeranging against his government,” he added.

Fuel is heavily taxed by India’s state and federal authorities, accounting for about 50 percent of the cost of petrol and 40 percent of the diesel price.

These taxes are a major source of income for the state exchequer. But many, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmakers like Subramanian Swamy, are calling upon the government to review the taxation of fuel.

Economist Prasenjit Bose said there is disproportionate stress on revenue generation from this essential commodity.

“If you compare the prices of petrol and diesel in India with neighbouring south-Asian countries, they are much higher. The government can reduce these taxes, if it wants to.

“Why is one commodity accounting for over 60 percent of your entire excise tax collection?” Bose asked.

‘Violent protests’

While the ruling BJP has reaped the benefits of the biggest global crude price crash in a generation since coming to power in 2014, oil is recovering as India gears up for elections in early 2019.

The BJP government criticised the opposition for spearheading “violent protests” on Monday and blamed the fuel price on global factors, including the crisis in oil-producing Venezuela.

A motorcyclist rides pass burning tyres put up on fire by supporters of Congress party in Guwahati, Assam [Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters]

“The BJP believes that inspite of some momentary difficulties, the people of this country are not supporting this shutdown,” Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters in New Delhi on Monday.

Adding to the government’s woes is the rupee fall. The Indian rupee, which has fallen more than eight percent this year, has pushed up prices of imported items such as petroleum products.

“The government is sensitive to the issue. The current escalation in prices is on account of global factors and basically temporary in nature,” BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli told Al Jazeera.

“The government has consistently been relief-oriented to the people evident from the benefits to citizens through various tax benefits and other measures,” he said.

The opposition is seeking to exploit Modi’s failure to deliver on his promise to create jobs for tens of thousands of youth, a lack-lustre economy and a broader decline in law and order.

Rising oil prices pose the biggest downside risk to India’s economy, a Reuters poll of economic analysts showed earlier this year.

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