Karnataka 2018

With just one polling booth, Karnataka's Kudremukh is largely ignored

After a 2002 Supreme Court order closed the Kudremukh mines in 2005, the town’s population has dwindled to barely 300. The future of scores of labourers hangs in the balance; and (right) workers of the closed Mysuru Paper Mills gather at the bus stop to mark their protest that has gone well past 880 days, against the factory’s closure. H.S. MANJUNATH  

In 2013 Assembly elections, there were four polling booths. For the 2018 polls, there is one. By the next election, the crumbling town of Kudremukh, set amidst the hills of the Western Ghats, may be entirely erased from the map.

After a 2002 Supreme Court order closed the mines in 2005, the town’s population has dwindled from an estimated 35,000 to barely 300 today. The forests of Kudremukh National Park is reclaiming the land: mining areas are now shrouded in green, shrubs are invading abandoned quarters, the river Bhadra has cleared up, and elephants have returned, pillaging the trees in the dying township.

While around 15 permanent employees will be transferred out, for the rest who depend on the local economy, there is hardly a political voice to vent their troubles. This year, even candidates have largely stayed away. “The incumbent JD(S) MLA had got three votes. Why will he bother coming here again,” says Bhaskar Shetty, a shopkeeper who campaigned for the party last election. Despite his business drawing a blank, he hangs on. “I came here 40 years ago, and I have no where else to go. If they want us to leave, they have to give us land outside the forests,” he said.

A little distance away from the township is the labourers’ colony — once densely crowded with those surviving on manual work in the township and factory. From 700 makeshift houses on government land, barely 50 are occupied. Being “encroachments”, they do not have electricity still. “Those who could leave have left. We are managing a living by work in the plantations. What will happen to us when the land we built houses on is given to the Forest Department?” says Paramashwarappa.

Bhadravati simmers

While Kudremukh finds no political audience, in Bhadravati, some 140 km away in Shivamogga district, the discontent over the closure of the Mysuru Paper Mills (MPM) has fomented to political vengeance.

For the over 150 workers still working there, apart from 2,000 contract and retired employees in the town, their target is a BJP leader, Araga Jnanendra, who was appointed as the chairman of the mills between 2009 and 2013. The next year, the mills, set up as a paper factory and sugar mill by the Mysore maharajas in 1937, was closed. The local economy was destroyed.

“All political parties have failed us. But, he [Mr. Jnanendra] oversaw our destruction (a CID inquiry is under way). Losses went from ₹32 crore to ₹300 crore under his watch, and we now suffer because of this,” says G. Babu, a worker.

The epicentre of this anger is a bus stop, just outside the factory, where in the past political leaders had given them assurances that the factory would not be closed. This is the only sight of activity in a town of abandoned houses, clubs and shops. Each morning, workers update the number chalked on it: 896 (on May 9) signifying the number of days since their protest against the closure started.

Mr. Jnanendra is standing for elections from the adjacent Theerthahalli constituency where more than 100 workers have been campaigning against him. Workers have even managed to get his political opponents there to question him on the MPM closure.

Within Bhadravati, they throw their weight behind a Congress candidate whom they credit with getting a ₹400-crore grant to settle dues of more than 1,100 workers.

Workers have been campaigning in the constituencies for over 10 hours daily, for free, and without political orders.

“As disinvestment spreads and more townships close, we want to tell the entire political system that we are not scapegoats that can be easily evicted and forgotten,” says Shivamurthy C.S., president of the employees’ union.

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 12:43:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/karnataka-2018/ghost-townships-that-simmer-with-voter-discontent/article23829226.ece

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