In poll time, politicians talked a lot, on a lot of issues. Curiously, water scarcity was not one of them
Ajay Singh | May 14, 2018
One of the three big elections before the grand final next year is over. Predictably, there was mud-slinging and allegations, caste equations and mutt visits, histories and histrionics: With a pinch of alternative facts. Thus was lost the opportunity to debate and discuss, once in five years, the issues that matter: Or should matter. And there was no dearth of such issues, as we found traversing the state.
Consider the water scarcity. When the South African city of Cape Town was running out of water in March, media outlets speculated on the fate of other cities. In one listicle, Bengaluru was named as one Indian city most likely to meet the fate of Cape Town very soon. The ‘fifth metro’ has been suffering from perennial water woes. Then, how surprising would it be that when the once-in-five-years vote time came, people and politicians of this city debated all and sundry matters but not water?
Karnataka has been facing a constant drought-like condition for the past three years, but the response from the Siddaramaiah government could not be any worse. In contrast, the SM Krishna government was better at tackling drought in Mysore and the adjoining regions. But what appears to be lacking is a consistent approach to tackle a drought-like situation. In Mysore and its adjoining regions, sugarcane and rice are grown which are water-intensive crops.
Since the area becomes arable only if Cauvery water is supplied, it is essential now to devise methods of harvesting rainwater and use modern agricultural technology like drip irrigation to reduce the consumption of water. A strong commitment to making Karnataka use its water resources judiciously and conserve water in the region would find resonance among people. In the entire state with diversified crop and growing urbanisation, a commitment to make plans to conserve water and creating a promising futuristic scenario will find wider acceptability.
While travelling across the state, one got a distinct feeling of voters being addressed and treated — rather, targeted — in a strategic manner. Technology and data are used to amplify communication and create a political smokescreen to divert attention from the real issues. Take, for example, the manner in which the water issue was cursorily mentioned in the election discourse. Just across Bengaluru, on the way to Mysore, you’d find the cultivation of paddy and sugarcane. The region is known as a sugarcane belt with a thriving sugar industry. Yet, the shortage of water is extremely acute. The Cauvery river, the lifeline for the social economy of the region, has practically dried up.
In a state where the agriculture is quite diverse, technology can be used to maximise the usage of water for agriculture. At the same time, there can be a serious discussion on protecting the green cover to conserve water and build structures to harvest rainwater. In and around Bengaluru, water tables have gone down to alarming levels. The forest cover is gradually dwindling thanks to the thriving business of timber mafias. The mining of sand is an issue which is nagging people who have to purchase it at an exorbitant cost. The non-availability of sand and its reckless mining, with the help of sitting legislators, mostly of the Congress, has caused a lot of social resentment.
While travelling along the highway connecting Bengaluru to Tumkur, Chitradurga and Chennagere, one passes through a beautiful landscape dotted with splendid hillocks. But most of these hillocks look barren as reckless cutting of trees has turned the region into an ecologically fragile zone. Mahima Patel, JD(U) candidate from Cehnnagere and son of former Karnataka chief minister JH Patel, said he was involved in a campaign for reforestation of the area which faced destruction on an industrial scale.
But none of these issues were adequately articulated in the din of the election campaign punctuated by fierce rhetoric on sectarian lines. If someone talked about Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Kuruba, everybody paid full attention. People talked of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s “masterstroke” in granting the minority religion status to the Lingayats. Analysts sought to discern a touch of strategic brilliance in BJP president Amit Shah’s attempt to co-opt smaller castes falling into the category of scheduled castes or OBCs.
Other issues ignored amid the election din
Nitty-gritty of governance
As the din of election campaign reached its peak, the debate went further and further in the past — from K Thimayya to Bhagat Singh — and less and less was said about the future of the state. How did the two main contending parties plan to take the state on the path of development? Urbanisation in Karnataka is chaos, giving a free hand to land mafia and corrupt real-estate developers. A concrete roadmap for urbanisation would have found better resonance among people. Beyond the platitudes of manifestos, little was said about the specific roadmap for governance.
The Congress has ruled the state for the full five years, and the other contender, BJP, had not only ruled the state earlier but has been in power at the Centre for four years. Yet, both sides seemed shy of debating, comparing and publicly evaluating their achievements. When this was attempted, it was more to show the other in a bad light.
For example, Congress campaigners frequently told their audiences, largely comprising of voluble urban voters, that the NDA government at the Centre despite its majority had little to show. This question got traction among a section of people divided on caste and communal loyalties. The BJP, in turn, responded by arguing that the Congress had done little in over six decades.
Though Karnataka is known as the engine of India’s IT power, Siddaramaiah’s politics of divide and rule made it look like Bihar of the Lalu era. The way he propped up one caste against the other, he seemed to be fascinated by the Bihari leader without realising the deleterious impact of Lalu’s model. In search of votes, he declared the Lingayat as a minority religion. No wonder, among enlightened Kannadigas, the prevailing sentiment was “Save us from Siddaramaiah”.
Historically and culturally, Karnataka has always rejected parochialism of any variety or social division on caste and communal lines. Karnataka has always chosen the political course which is aligned to national politics. This time, there was a determined attempt to push the state towards the path of sub-nationalism, which as a political tool, has failed in states where regional parties are strong. Siddaramaiah’s tactic may prove to be a gross injustice for people of the state.
This article appears in the 1-15 May edition of Governance Now.
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