In Bellary, an intense BJP-Congress battle masks livelihood issues
Congress supporters on a roadshow in Hosapete town.

In Bellary, an intense BJP-Congress battle masks livelihood issues

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There was a time when the Hospet-Bellary National Highway was a stretch of dusty, bumpy road that tourists dreaded and mining trucks frequented. But things changed after the Supreme Court banned mining in 2011. Clean roads have replaced the older, unkempt ones in this region of Karnataka as no mining trucks come by now.

Ballari (previously Bellary) once accounted for a third of the country’s iron ore production. While environmentalists and anti-corruption movements saw the ban on illegal mining as a victory, it caused a negative impact on the unorganised labour force. Landless agriculture labourers who turned to mining because of droughts in the region lost jobs. Many struggle to cope with the situation even now, as rehabilitation programmes were not effectively implemented.

Pennappa BTP of Devagiri village in Sandur, one of the worst-affected regions by illegal iron ore mining, says he used to earn ₹6,000-8,000 per month driving trucks for the mining companies. Now he struggles to earn a livelihood.

“I can’t go back to agriculture as dust fills the land now. I can’t get driving jobs. I have to repay loans that I borrowed to get my daughter married. I am uneducated and I don’t know any other job,” he says. The 40-year-old understands the health and environmental impact of the illegal mining, but he had no choice but to depend on the mining sector.

Another mining dependent, Manjunath Kabade, who worked as a supervisor tracking loading and unloading of mines on railway coaches for 20 years, says he was jobless for three years. Kabade’s income dropped by 60% and he now works in a hotel as a receptionist in Hosapete (previously Hospet). “No matter which party comes to power or campaigns here, none of them talk about job creation. They only talk about other the party’s misdeeds,” he says.

Alternative options

There exist a mining dependents’ lobby group, promoted by mining companies, which held a protest in Delhi last week, seeking the Centre’s attention to end discriminatory practices in the Karnataka mining sector and re-open the sector to create more jobs.

“The mining companies sponsored the workers’ Delhi trip. They have an agenda. They do not care about peoples’ lives here,” a source who did not wish to be quoted said. “The iron-ore prices are over $95 (₹6,650) per tonne in the international market. But, at present, we sell it at ₹2,500-3,000 in India. The companies see the market potential and want to undo all the good work done by the Supreme Court,” the source added.

Between 2014-2018, about 37,602 illegal mining cases were registered, of which 2,423 FIRs were lodged, according to the minister of state for mines and coal.

Both Pennappa and Kabade, who are unaware of the mining dependents’ group, are not looking for the mining sector to re-open, but they need alternative job opportunities where they can earn a decent living.

Ground realities are different

Ballari came in the limelight when former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi contested the Lok Sabha polls from there to win against BJP’s Sushma Swaraj in 1999. But she forfeited the seat to retain Amethi in Uttar Pradesh where she contested simultaneously.

In 2004, the BJP got hold of the seat under Karunakara Reddy, the eldest brother of tainted mining baron G Janardhan Reddy. The region turned into a BJP stronghold over the past 14 years under the control of the Reddy brothers. In 2014, B Sreeramulu, a close aide of the Reddy brothers, retained the seat. He gave up the seat to unsuccessfully contest against former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah in Badami Assembly constituency last year.

In the bypolls, VS Ugrappa, with the help of Congress leader DK Shivakumar, got the seat into the Congress fold once again. He defeated Sreeramulu’s sister.

Now the fight is between Congress’ Ugrappa and BJP’s Devendrappa, a Congress-rebel candidate. It is an indirect fight between DK Shivakumar and Sreeramulu. Ugrappa is a close aide of Congress party’s Ramesh Jarkiholi, a rebel who caused problems for the Congress after the party dropped him from the state cabinet. The BJP tried to woo him under ‘Operation Kamala’, a strategy to bring down the state government.

Airing his political views, Kabade says not many are aware of the BJP candidate and since it’s just six months since Ugrappa won the seat, it could go in his favour again.

Commenting on the political situation in Ballari, Narendra Pani, political analyst and professor of National Institute of Advanced Studies, says the mining boom was over and the mining barons, too, are divided over which party to support. “The Lok Sabha elections have nothing to do with the ground issues (job loss and farm crisis). Last time they (BJP) won because they were assured a cabinet berth. It’s tough fight for both the candidates this time, one cannot say how the votes will swing,” Pani adds.

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