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First taste of fury for Reliance Fresh

Ranchi, May 12: Hundreds of street vendors armed with rods stormed three Reliance outlets today as fears of survival sparked the first attack on the company since its countrywide push into farm retail.

The protesters, among them a large number of women, marched down the Jharkhand capital, screaming slogans and targeting one store after another before police used bamboo canes to chase them away.

The attack, one of the most serious instances of unrest linked to the entry of large retail chains in the fragmented sector, comes at a time when the corporate giant faces opposition in neighbouring Bengal, too.

Last month, the Mukesh Ambani-led company had to whittle down plans for a project spanning Bengal after the original proposal ran into resistance from the Forward Bloc and other allies of the CPM-led government.

In Ranchi, the vendors had been protesting against the city’s four Reliance Fresh stores for the past fortnight, claiming that the chain was driving them out of business by selling vegetables at rates much lower than market prices.

Today, as their anger boiled over, they attacked the outlets, which had been shut as a precautionary measure, smashed glass panes, ransacked a restaurant and didn’t spare even the two-wheelers parked outside.

Reliance Fresh spokesperson Manu Kapoor confirmed it was the first attack on the company, which has 157 outlets across 18 states.

The vendors, joined by daily wage labourers, screamed “down with Anil Ambani” — though the chain is owned by his brother Mukesh — and “down with (chief minister) Madhu Koda” as they marched down the streets.

Senior police officers, busy playing a friendly cricket match, woke up to the unrest late. City superintendent of police Richard Lakra claimed his force was caught unawares because the vendors changed their route at the last moment.

Uday Shankar Ojha of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (P), who led the procession and is among the 13 arrested, justified the attack. “It is a question of survival of thousands of street vendors and they are not likely to listen to anyone,” he said.

In Bengal, Bloc leader and state marketing board chairman Naren Chatterjee warned that the corporate giant could face similar attacks if it went ahead with plans to open stores in the state.

“If small traders are affected, the reaction may be violent,” he said.

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