Mass rally against inflation in Indian capital

NEW DELHI, Feb 23, 2011 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of people gathered in the Indian capital on Wednesday to protest against inflation, complaining that rising prices were increasing hardship for the country's many poor.

The mostly working-class demonstrators, many carrying Communist flags and shouting slogans against inflation and corruption, converged on the centre of New Delhi for the rally, with surrounding roads closed to traffic.

Indian women during a rally organised by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) near the parliament house in New Delhi on February 23, 2011. AFP

The rally was organised by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), which joined forces with other unions to pressure the government over inflation before the unveiling of a new annual budget on Monday.

"Workers from 19 states, thousands of women among them, are reaching Delhi and will march to parliament to seek their rightful share in the country's so-called 'robust growth story'," said a CITU statement.

The CITU said it expected 800,000 to one million people, though this figure could not be independently verified. Police were unable to estimate the number of demonstrators.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described inflation as a "serious" threat to India's growth, and the government has been racing to boost vegetable and other supplies to bring down soaring food prices.

The most recent data show annual food inflation at 11.05 percent, down from its highs of nearly 20 percent, while headline inflation as measured by the wholesale price index is at 8.23 percent.

Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told AFP that nearly 2,000 policemen had been deployed in central Delhi to keep order during the demonstration.

"We have instructed the police to ensure that the crowd does not vandalise government buildings or monuments in central Delhi," he said.

One protester, Jagdeesh Thakur, president of a secondary school teachers' association in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said the left-leaning government was "on the wrong path".

"We need to control inflation. Stop unemployment and stop privatisations," he told AFP. "The government is on the wrong path. It has forgotten the poor. It is only interested in helping the rich."

Rishi Pal, a 52-year-old member of a farmers' union from the northwestern state of Punjab, said: "We need the government to control prices. Poor people can't feed their families."

As well as surging inflation, a host of corruption scandals ranging from the Delhi Commonwealth Games last October to the sale of telecom licences has sapped the energy of Singh's administration and led to months of bad publicity.

On Tuesday, Singh agreed to set up a cross-party investigation into the licence sales in 2008 that has led to a police investigation and the arrest of his former telecom minister, A. Raja.

Opposition parties wrecked the last session of parliament in 2010 by holding protests every day demanding an inquiry into the cut-price sales, which could have cost the country up to $40 billion in lost revenue.

The government, a coalition led by Singh's Congress party, is expected to pass its budget for the next fiscal year on Monday next week.

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