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05 October 2013

TRAVEL TALES : Stuck in strike in Vijayawada

MG Road in the day

THE MOMENT I switched on my mobile phone after landing in Vijayawada City in southern India yesterday, five missed calls registered.  They were from the head office, wanting me to return to Mumbai immediately. Unbeknownst to me (and them), a three-day public strike had formed in Vijayawada on the day I landed. From what they'd heard on media, the agitation in the city streets was ferocious and therefore unsafe. The alarm bells rang too late: return flights were no longer available. I had no choice but check into the nearest hotel for overnight safety. Besides, I wasn't really keen on lugging back to Mumbai a humongous package of display materials that I needed for opening a Globus store in this city.

The agitation was part of a severe backlash against Telangana getting upgraded from region to full-fledged state. The region heretofore belonged to the state of Andhra Pradesh (AP). Its capital city would be Hyderabad, AP's largest city and one of India's fastest-growing. The move for its creation had gathered enormous steam on media in the past many months, with politicians slugging it out amidst increasing public cries to dissolve the idea. For non-Indians reading this post, imagine Brooklyn raising a fuss over Manhattan becoming a state. (My American friend Tony, however, rebuts that Brooklyn will be more than happy if Manhattan becomes a state!)

The ride from airport to city normally takes less than an hour. Yesterday, though, it took three hours, with the cab driver avoiding blocked roads and detouring into smaller, stoney lanes. The ride through Vijayawada's outskirts indicated a compelling reason why the city—and the rest of Andhra Pradesh—isn't happy with the loss of Telangana. It's the economy. Endless mustard and rice fields sprawl at the foot of odd-shaped mountains and hills; I saw a few industrial facilities along the way. The other side of this city would be flanking the Indian Ocean. Hyderabad, and Telangana, provides the industrial bread and butter to the entire region. Vijayawada's growth potential seems high, but right now, it did look reliant on Telangana's wealth.

As I neared my hotel in the city, the proof of agitation spread out in the city's roads. Burnt tires, young folks brandishing angry banners, older men blocking both pedestrians and motorists, police stationed in corners with sticks. I think I passed by a dead animal (or it could have been a log). I still couldn't believe I landed in this city the day the protests began.

Later that night, bored in the hotel, I ventured out into the main avenue. It was wide, dirty, and eerily calm, the aftermath of an angry storm. I counted at least three malls, all emblazoned with branded light boxes on their facade. Having seen the pastoral sights in the outskirts, I thought that this modern-looking road belonged to another place in another time.

It was as much a testament to an aberration of place as the strike that was crippling it.

MG Road at night


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