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Red Earth and fine dust: political choices in the 'Republic of Bellary'

With the Karnataka Assembly elections approaching, Ballari, the erstwhile hub of illegal mining and political stronghold of the Reddy brothers, is gearing up too. The Hindu reports on the political choices facing voters

March 17, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 02:14 pm IST

Gouged out: A family waits at Kumaraswamy hills for a bus back to their village.

Gouged out: A family waits at Kumaraswamy hills for a bus back to their village.

Not far from the border separating Ballari (formerly Bellary) from its neighbouring district of Chitradurga in Karnataka is a small, red house. It faces a plot of about 26 acres, where ornamental shrubs and coconut trees wilt in the afternoon heat. Visible in the distance are the dry forests of the Sandur Hills and the iron ore mines that scar the mountain side like remnants of old wounds.

The plot was to be a church, as per the board outside. But because the area has no water, the plans came undone. So, for the next three months, it will host the camp office of G. Janardhana Reddy, of ‘Bellary brothers’ fame. He was the man who, along with his two brothers, came to epitomise the illegal mining syndicate that had established complete control over an area that holds nearly a quarter of the country’s iron ore reserves.

The erstwhile mining baron has been barred from entering Ballari district by the Supreme Court (SC). So over the past month, a team has been scouting for farmhouses close by. Two have been selected: one near Hampi on the western edge of Ballari district, and another here at Thammenahalli village, barely 25 km from Ballari city. It is from here that they hope to recover a semblance of the political hold they once had in the district.

The 2018 Karnataka Assembly election, likely to be held in May, will be a test of their influence, which is believed to be waning. At least 13 politicians who were miners or connected to illegal mining are lobbying for tickets. If in 2013 the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had become the face of the illegal mining scam, in 2018 many of the ‘tainted’ politicians have landed in the Congress party. These include former BJP MLAs Anand Singh and B. Nagendra, both arrested for illegal mining. Other ‘tainted miners’, including Anil Lad, Santosh Lad, E. Tukaram, Anand Singh, B. Nagendra and Abdul Wahab, dominate regional politics.

On February 10, on the other side of the Sandur Hills, Congress president Rahul Gandhi kicked off Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s re-election campaign with a rally in Hospet. It seemed fitting, for it was in this very district seven years ago that Congress leaders had concluded their grand 320 km padayatra (march) against illegal mining. The rally had helped generate the political momentum that eventually brought down the ruling BJP government.

On the stage with Gandhi were two defectors from the BJP, both implicated for illegal mining by the Lokayukta report, and three incumbent Congress MLAs whose mines had been shut down for illegalities. Ironically, the Congress President was gifted a picture of the eighth century Kumaraswamy temple, a symbol of Sandur now threatened by the reopening of two mines in its vicinity. The gift was presented to him by former miner and MLA Anil Lad. During his entire 30-minute speech, which was covered widely, Gandhi did not once refer to illegal mining.

A part of the Ballari mines in the Sandur hills, in the Swamimalai forest range.

A part of the Ballari mines in the Sandur hills, in the Swamimalai forest range.


The band of mining brothers

The Reddy brothers exude, and thrive on, a larger-than-life aura that embodies confidence and control, even if all the signs suggest the contrary. “When I tour the district, people say the Ballari Tiger has come. Then they ask where the lion (Janardhana Reddy) is. Now he is at the district’s doorstep,” says the youngest of the three brothers, G. Somashekhara Reddy, who is accused of offering ₹100 crore as bribe to a judge in exchange for giving bail to his then-arrested elder brother, Janardhana.

Somashekhara sits in the Ballari BJP office, which was built when the three Reddy brothers (the eldest being G. Karunakara Reddy) were ministers. When the BJP distanced itself from the miners before the 2013 elections, the office became the headquarters of the Badavara Shramikara Raitara Congress Party (BSRCP), a rebel outfit started by their political supporter and MLA, B. Sriramulu. In fact, Sriramulu’s palatial bungalow is not far from the building owned by the Reddy brothers.

In the 2013 Assembly elections, even with the backlash over the mining scam, the new party and its supported candidates garnered 28% of the vote in the district. Following a patch-up, the office is back to being the BJP’s headquarters in the district.

In the ‘Republic of Bellary,’ as the Karnataka Lokayukta’s investigation had termed the miner-politician-bureaucrat nexus that operated freely from 2004 to 2010, the Reddy troika had Ballari firmly in their grasp. Mining permits were given only at their behest, even as iron ore was exported illegally. The Lokayukta report estimated the overall loss to the exchequer on account of their illegal operations at ₹16,085 crore.

The Reddy brothers used money, intimidation and violence to accumulate political power. For nearly seven years, starting from 2004, they funded and propped up candidates for local elections. Today most of them steer clear of the Reddys, at least in public. “We spent crores on them, and this is how they treat us now,” laments Somashekhara, whose candidature for the Ballari city constituency remains in doubt.

Among those unwilling to support them is the State BJP, which is caught in a dilemma over its relationship with the Reddys. The trick, says a senior State politician, is to get Sriramulu, a prominent face form the sizeable Scheduled Tribe community, into the BJP fold without acquiring the Reddys in the bargain. Direct association with the Reddys, says the politician, could bring in a few more votes in the district, though it is certain to have an adverse impact on the party’s chances elsewhere in the State.

Life after the ‘Republic’

Following the Supreme Court’s intervention starting in 2011, the anarchic exploitation of the mines witnessed under the Reddys has given way to a relatively more tax-compliant, e-auction-driven system.

In the Kumaraswamy Hills of Sandur, the trucks trundling along on a narrow road covered in ore dust leave behind a trail of bright red, fine sand. The dust clears temporarily at the entrance to one of the mines and reveals a group of men crouched at the only eatery in the area. They have handkerchiefs across their faces, their clothes are caked in mud. Hawkers squat on the ground, selling sand-coated packets of biscuits and chips.

“From the time the mining resumed, we have been able to earn a decent living. The dust is our punishment,” says Prasanna, who has been running a luncheon service here for a decade. A tarpaulin offers some protection from the never-ending micro-storms of dust. Over 1,000 drivers and cleaners come here daily.

Of the 98 mines that were temporarily closed by the SC in 2011, 26 have been opened up since 2013. Mining is scheduled to begin soon in another seven ‘illegal’ mines that had been shut down, while 21 more will come up for auction. The production cap has been raised to 35 million tonnes, which is close to the nearly 41 million tonnes ‘legally’ extracted in 2008.

Already more than 9 sq km of forests have been, or are being, diverted while railway lines and highways are being planned through the dense Western Ghats to enable the ore to reach the ports. For those living around the mines, the difference between the legal and the illegal is hardly visible: pollution and dust chokes their villages, trucks monopolise their streets, and politics continues to be dominated by ‘tainted’ miners.

A caustic legacy

Santosh Hedge Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Santosh Hedge Photo: Sandeep Saxena


In far-off Bengaluru, Santosh Hegde, former Karnataka Lokyukta, sounds dismayed by the political clout still wielded by the miners he had indicted in his report. “What is the point of having us inquire into this, having our officers risk their lives by naming three Chief Ministers and seven Ministers, if they all continue to remain in politics?” he says.

In the iron-ore rich district, miners and mining have been an integral part of the region’s politics. M.Y. Ghorpade, a descendant of the Sandur royal family and former owner of Sandur Manganese and Iron Ores Limited (SMIORE), was elected seven times in the Assembly elections, and is even now remembered for the social welfare programmes he set up for mine workers. Others, such as Allum Veerabhadrappa, a four-time MLA, and K.C. Kondaiah, who played a critical role in Sonia Gandhi’s election in 1999, were prominent in the district’s politics.

However, sometime in 2004, there was a spurt in illegal mining to cater to the growing demand from China, which was furiously expanding infrastructure for the Olympics. The spike in demand drove up iron ore prices six times or more, and money started flowing into the political system. This, say political observers, is the caustic legacy of the Reddys, who, in turn, funnelled huge amounts of the money they made into politics.

“Everyone gives out money. I only saluted and met people. People around me gave money and I would not ask accounts,” says Somashekara, who was elected to the State Assembly in 2008.

Sitting alone in the Raj era cosmopolitan club in Ballari city, M. Diwakar Babu, a two-time MLA who has helmed the district Congress for the past nine years, says that he last contested, unsuccessfully, in 2004. He now has half a foot out of politics. “In 2004, when I was canvassing, people started asking me for money in exchange for their vote. Others had given them enough for their votes. I realised that this sort of politics is not for me,” he says. This saw him remain vocal against tainted miners, even declaring in 2013 that he wouldn’t campaign for two miners from his party. “Elections run on money. And here, money is in mining,” he says. “The option for voters is to choose the lesser of the two evils, either thieves or thugs.”

Armed with election lists and clearly marked out jurisdictions, agents are entrusted with delivering cash to voters. Every family receives money from the candidates of both the leading parties. If two mining barons square off, they compete to up the price. This year, very few have the guarantee of victory in their constituency, and former miners say that up to ₹60 crore may be spent in their constituency.

For Nabi Saheb, who runs a roadside stall in Ballari city, the price for his vote has gone up since the mining stopped. “Look at the houses of these politicians, and their hordes of cash. They give us only ₹1,000-2,000. What can we do with it? If they want my vote, let them give me more, ₹5,000 at least.”

Nostalgia versus hostility


In Ballari city, many still look back nostalgically at the years of rampant illegal mining: easy cash, booming businesses, and wide roads built to accommodate the thousands of trucks that plied back and forth between the mines and the railway stations.

However, closer to the mines, the boom and bust has left villagers in the dust. At the end of an 8-km-long, dusty road that skirts the mines is Devagiri, a hamlet of 500 houses huddled around a temple. In 2010, the village was surrounded by seven mines. Five have been closed since, but the two still operational continue to douse them in fine dust.

As the mines mushroomed around the village, farming died a slow death. Now, less than 10 acres of the 1,442 acres of village land is cultivated. And yet there is little work in the mines: barely 45 people are employed, while more than 150 scramble for daily wage work.

As a babble of voices rises up against mining, 54-year-old Mallige Penappa is the most vocal. After his farm turned into a mine, he worked there until its closure. Since then, he has found only sporadic employment. His 24-year-old son, Yogesh Kumar, has not found even steady manual work since graduating last year. But he remains firm in his conviction that the mines should not open at all. “Even with two mines, we live and eat amidst all this dust. When blasting occurs, the village trembles. Imagine if five more mines reopen. It will be like living in hell,” says Penappa.

Once a mine becomes mechanised, each block requires just 30 people to operate. After blasting, huge machinery scoops up the ore, and trucks transport them to factories in the plains. Locals scarcely find employment in the process.

In Swamihalli village, 34-year-old Ramanjaneya knows that his post-graduation degree is worth little in the mines. “The only job I could get was that of reviewing the trucks that enter the mines, which paid ₹5,000 a month. But I could not sit there, day in and day out, in the dust. There is no work in the offices. We are only part-time labour,” he says, and adds an accusation many have repeated, “It is only those with political connections that can find decent jobs at the mines.”

Bhujanganagar village is in the neighbourhood of two mines that used to employ more than 100 people before being closed due to illegalities. Both were owned by sitting MLAs. Today less than 30 have found employment in other mines.

A tour of the hills reveals a seething hostility towards mining, which gives little to the locals but takes much from them. Doctors in Sandur note that asthma and lung infections are on the rise. Across the region, open wells have dried up and water from borewells is found only at depths of 600 ft. The storage capacity of the 3 TMC (one thousand million cubic feet) Narihalla reservoir, which supplies drinking water to Sandur, has reduced by half, as dumped mining waste seeps into it with every spell of rain.

A campaign is building up to preserve the three temples in the area, including the historic Kumaraswamy temple. The monuments are under threat from the legal mines as well as the ones closed but allotted in auctions. In all of this, the Karnataka Mining Environment Restoration Corporation, which was formed to deal with the environmental impact, has not been able to spend a single rupee from the over ₹7,000 crore collected from mining companies.

A 7-km-long conveyor belt that is coming up could mitigate the problem of dust flying out from the trucks. But this relatively pro-environment project has angered the truck industry, which also happens to be one of the biggest employers in the region. Over 5,000 trucks service the mines in the district, giving work to more than 20,000 drivers and cleaners.

“The only jobs left for us locals are as drivers, cleaners, mechanics, and garages. All of this will go once the conveyor belt comes up next year,” says K. Anand, from the local truck owners’ association. At the height of the illegal mining, the truck cleaner-turned-owner had bought five trucks. Five months ago, he sold all of them, along with five acres of his farmland, to pay back bank the loans he had accumulated after the business slump.

A different politics

It is perhaps this anger that could eventually liberate the region’s politics from the clutches of the miners. Jana Sangrama Parishat, an NGO battling illegal mining, encourages ‘clean’ candidates. “Whenever we go to the villages and ask them not to vote for tainted miners, they tell us that there are no viable alternatives. This time around, we hope to provide these candidates,” says A.G. Shreeshaila, the NGO’s district secretary. But he knows it is a difficult task. “Even if Mahatma Gandhi were to stand for elections, he will lose here unless he has ₹30 crore to spend.”

A former miner, too, is hoping to achieve the same objective, but his campaign is specifically aimed at ensuring that the Reddys do not take over once again. Tapal Ganesh comes from a family of miners. He had been vocal against the Reddy brothers’ inter-state mining violations, which also included encroachment on his own mine.

Ganesh’s anger has since fermented, and he now plans to stand for elections with the sole purpose of defeating Somashekhara. “I don’t have any operational mines, and I have no money. I don’t expect to win,” he says. “But I want to make sure that the Reddys are politically snuffed out. Even if I take a few thousand votes away from them in their loss, I will be happy.”

With inputs from K.V. Aditya Bhardwaj in Bengaluru and M. Ahiraj in Ballari

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