V.P. Kulkarni, CPI (M) candidate, Ramdurg Assembly constituency

Though he formally entered the election race late, V.P. Kulkarni of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has in a sense always been in the campaign — the campaign to change people's lives in Ramdurg, an Assembly constituency in the Belgaum Lok Sabha constituency in Karnataka.

The lone communist candidate in a regional belt overshadowed by the electoral presence of the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Parivar parties, Mr. Kulkarni has nevertheless been able to raise the level of the pre-election debate by drawing attention to the pressing issues of the electorate in the region. He himself has been actively involved in campaigns to ameliorate conditions in his area; for example, the 19-day dharna he organised outside the Tehsildar's office led to the distribution of 22,000 yellow ration cards for the poor. Or the "Mulloor ghat horatta" (Mulloor Ghat struggle) he led for the widening of an accident-prone hill road near Ramdurg.

"Irrigation is the main issue in this region," says the soft-spoken Kulkarni. He has been spearheading the popular campaign for the linking of the Kalas and Bandur canals to the Malaprabha river which will irrigate approximately two lakh hectares. Although Central clearance was given for the Rs.10 crore project, objections raised by the Goa Government stayed the scheme. Mr. Kulkarni also has feasible technical blueprints for small irrigation barrages on the Ghataprabha river.

The high level of debt the peasantry is burdened with is another crucial issue in Belgaum. "Forty thousand families in Ramdurg taluk owe Rs. 87 crore to banks and cooperative institutions," says Mr. Kulkarni. "The State Government, we hear, is going to construct a tower for the Old Bangalore Jail for Rs.90 crore. That would wipe out the debt of Ramdurg taluk! "

It is, however, Mr. Kulkarni's tireless efforts in tackling the burden of the farm power tariff hike that has made him the popular and revered figure he is in the villages of Ramdurg taluk. When the State Government privatised power distribution and hiked tariffs, he set up the Belgaum District Pumpset Owners Association (BDPOA). "Tariffs were hiked to between Rs. 300 to Rs. 540 per hp per month. Those who did not have metered pumpsets were threatened with imprisonment and a Rs. 50,000 fine. A "Pulikesi Battalion" was set up to implement this draconian order," says Mr. Kulkarni. The BDPOA retaliated by organising the "Sangoli Rayanna battalion" to resist it. They publicly burnt bills for arrears of Rs. 70,000 to Rs. 80,000, which they had suddenly been saddled with, and resisted the attempts by the "Pulikesi Brigade" to disconnect non-metered pumpsets. The BDPOA conducted an informed though militant campaign against the unreasonable burdens that power reforms imposed. "We believe that the provision of subsidies by the State for power to agriculture is a social responsibility," says Mr. Kulkarni. His organisation's work was certainly one factor that led to the waiver of Rs. 1000 crore power dues by the Government in its last budget.

Mr. Kulkarni is unconcerned by the fact that in an election where power, money and caste loyalties play a major role, he faces a difficult challenge. "If I am elected that is good, if not, nothing will change," he says.

Parvathi Menon

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