A strike by public sector oil firms that almost crippled India was called off after three days Friday evening, soon after the government warned that the strikers would be sacked if they did not resume work.
"Yes, we have called off our agitation," Sanjay Varshney, one of the vice presidents of the Oil Sector Officers Association (OSOA) that launched the strike Wednesday, told IANS.
Saturday and Sunday have also been declared working days at the state-owned energy companies in a desperate bid to restore normalcy across India after thousands of fuel stations ran out of stock, paralysing road traffic in many places and hitting hard refineries.
There were signs of the strike coming apart since Friday afternoon with staffers of energy firms starting to resume duty in batches after warnings of mass dismissals.
Attendance at Bharat Petroleum (BPCL) rose 40 percent, those at Oil India (OIL) withdrew from the strike, and employees of Indian Oil Corp (IOC) in the southern region resumed work.
The OSOA, the umbrella body of about 45,000 employees of over a dozen state-run energy firms, were demanding higher salaries.
A few hours before the strike ended, Petroleum Minister Murli Deora asserted that the protest was set to end.
“The illegal strike seems to be over. In the whole country, the situation has improved,” the minister said.
“Near-normal situation is expected in BPCL by evening. The IOC (Indian Oil Corp) Panipat refinery will start output later today while the Mathura refinery will start operations within 12 hours,” he said. “The government is confident the strike will be called off within next six to 12 hours.”
Deora, who rejected talks with the strikers if they did not resume work, Friday morning sought the Territorial Army's help to end the impasse.
The crisis management group of the cabinet met in the morning and decided that the government would not bow to the strikers.
Petroleum ministry Secretary R.S. Sharma warned striking employees to call off the strike or face the axe.
“There are only two options before you: join work immediately or face arrest under ESMA (Essential Supplies Maintenance Act) or NSA (National Security Act)," Pandey said.
Maintaining that “there is no pleasure in dismissing people”, Pandey said that strikers could also face dismissal from service.
And to show that it was no idle threat, the Oil and Natutral Gas Corp (ONGC) sacked 64 employees. IOC and GAIL India (formerly Gas Authority of India) axed three staffers each, he said.
According to Pandey, only a third of IOC outlets were operational across the country. For BPCL it was a little over 65 percent while at 95 percent it was the highest at Hindustan Petroleum, whose employees had not joined the strike.
Both Deora and Pandey asked the people to stop panic buying.
During the day, fuel-starved autorickshaws, taxis and private vehicles went off the roads in India's financial capital Mumbai, putting millions to hardship. The situation was only marginally better in New Delhi, where road traffic thinned by evening as scores of petrol and diesel pumps ran out of stock.
As panic mounted all over the country with motorists jostling for what little was available in petrol stations, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said: "Strong action would be taken and I believe strong actions are being taken. If someone from the army has to be called, they will be called."
Indo-Asian News Service