Tens of thousands of small shopkeepers went on strike across India Thursday to protest a government decision to allow foreign retail giants like Wal-Mart Stores Inc to enter the country's $450 billion retail market.
Global supermarket groups see a huge opportunity in India, Asia's third-largest economy with a fast growing consumer class. For millions of shopkeepers, though, the prospect of competing with Wal -Mart and other multinational retail brands is daunting.
I only earn about 2,000 rupees a week and I have 7 children to take care of, said 42-year-old Rakesh Kumar, who owns a small curtain store in a narrow alley in Karol Bagh market in Delhi. If these foreigners waltz in here and take away whatever I earn, how will I get my little girls married in the future? he asked.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and government coalition allies have stalled Parliament this week to protest at what they say will be widespread job losses among millions of small traders. One BJP politician last week threatened to burn down any store Wal-Mart opens in Lucknow.
In a country of 1.2 billion people, the protests were patchy. In some BJP strongholds most small business were closed, while in ruling Congress party-dominated cities such as New Delhi the strike was partial.
Demonstrating traders in Delhi chanted Rollback the FDI and held placards reading, If you can't provide us with jobs, don't take away our current ones!
The controversy has become a lightning rod for the opposition ahead of state elections next year that will pave the way for a general election in 2014.
Uproar from lawmakers over the retail move led to both houses being suspended on Thursday, as they have been every day since the winter parliamentary session opened on November 22.
The opposition is demanding a vote on the retail issue in parliament, but so far the government has rejected this, fearing it could lose any adjournment motion, a parliamentary mechanism to censure the government.
Hobbled by corruption scandals, stubbornly high inflation and a rapidly cooling economy Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had hoped the supermarket reform would get his agenda of market reforms back on track.
Instead, the legislative disruption it has triggered risks pushing into the long grass even a widely touted Lokpal bill that has broad political support. Some would-be shoppers shrugged off the strike and parliamentary uproar as business as usual for India.
Oh, this country is so dramatic about everything. This is all a political gimmick, said 36-year-old Suhasini Patel, who came to buy a loaf of bread, but found all the shops closed. No big deal. They've closed their shops today and are digging their own grave, he added.