Most of the houses constructed under the flagship Aasare scheme of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the villages of Kongawad and Aratti in Navalgund taluk of Dharwad district remain unoccupied. They stretch out in long lines of small yellow boxes baking under the hot April sun. The few that have been occupied have been extended with tin sheets or thatch to form sheds to accommodate a family’s cattle and other belongings. These are villages built to rehabilitate victims of the floods that ravaged several north Karnataka districts in October 2009, claiming 229 lives and reducing thousands of villages to rubble.

“The houses were ready two years after the floods, and it took another year for it to be formally inaugurated,” said Neelappa Jakkanavar, a farmer with two acres, who lives with his wife and three children in his small house. People have not moved in because though pipes have been laid there is no water. For large families the 260-sq.-ft space is insufficient.

In Aratti village, Muthappa Dyamappa Madar’s is among a handful of families that have moved in. He evinces little interest in the elections to be held on May 5. In these flood-created villages, it is ironically the impact of drought and the uncertainty of employment that is staring working families in the face. The elections have generated some jobs in an otherwise jobless situation, especially in the semi-urban and urban areas, where parties employ people for campaigning, for anything between Rs. 200 and Rs. 400 with two meals thrown in.

Muthappa Dyamappa does not associate any particular party with solving the problems of agrarian distress, the signs of which are there to see. The black cotton soil of the area lies fallow after the failure of last year’s rains. Crops have failed, migration is widespread, crop prices have dropped and employment is stagnating.

“Development is visible, the people are happy with our work. We have waived Rs. 3,600 crore in agricultural loans, and 16 lakh farmers have benefitted,” Chief Minister agadish Shettar, contesting from Hubli-Dharwad (Central) constituency, told The Hindu.

Not too different from the promise made by Basavaraj Horatti, MLC, and former Education Minister in the H.D. Kumaraswamy-led JD(S)-BJP coalition. He said: “We have promised to waive Rs. 19,800 crore of farm loans in 24 hours if we are elected. People know we are pro-development.”

Not in Anchatageri village, just 12 km from Hubli, where there are few jobs to be had. Here the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme designed to create jobs has failed. “There is too much paperwork, people want daily payments and, therefore, go to Hubli rather than work on the site,” a panchayat official admitted.

B.S. Soppin, a former teacher and now an activist of the Karnataka Prantha Raitha Sangha, said, “Loan waivers, even if they take place, are meaningless in a situation where a majority of farmers are weighed down by high-interest personal loans.” Indeed, “development” has become an abused word in the electoral vocabulary, vague and in permanent disconnect with reality.

The wide sweep of north Karnataka, which includes the two blocks that are still called Bombay Karnataka (with seven districts) and Hyderabad Karnataka (six districts), has 96 of the 224 seats in the Karnataka Assembly. In the 2008 elections, the BJP won 59 seats, the Congress 28 and the JD(S) eight. One seat went to an independent candidate. In these elections, the new political factor is B.S. Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Paksha, a force that is expected to cut into BJP’s vote base.

This broad swathe that is north Karnataka, knit in respect of its economic and human development indicators, has lagged far behind the rest of the State. Until these pressing issues of underdevelopment are addressed in their specificities in the electoral debate, in manifestos, and in post-election policies, the democratic exercise of elections will be empty of substance for a majority of the voters from this region.

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