There are a total of 16,12,227 electors in the entire Kolar constituency. As per the 2011 census, the scheduled caste population in Kolar district is 30.3% of the total population – highest in the state. Hence, Kolar is one of the five parliamentary constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes in Karnataka. As per the Karnataka Chief Electoral Officer’s website, Kolar Gold Fields (K.G.F) is the smallest assembly constituency under the Kolar parliamentary constituency with 1,90,239 electors, of which 2,399 are voters aged between 18 and 19. Once known as ‘Little England’, KGF now wears the deserted look of a ghost town.
Last week, as I drove into KGF, a big hoarding announcing the polling date of April 18 hoisted next to the cyanide salt dumps – a significant reminder of the glorious mining past – welcomed me. As I passed the Oorgaum station, I noticed the large number of parked two wheelers; many working class people commute daily to Bengaluru city for work. Ever since the nationalised mining company BGML (Bharat Gold Mines Limited) closed all the mines in 2001, jobs have been hard to come by in the town. BEML, the other major employer, has also slowed down operations and has not been recruiting for many years. Thanks to the British who brought in many workers from the then Madras Presidency to work in the mines, KGF boasts of a largely Tamil speaking population.
Rusting mining equipment peep from behind the shut gates of the many mines as a stark metaphor for the miseries of the miners who are yet to receive 50% of their promised VRS package. The BGML workers unions have not given up and due to their continued efforts, the final verdict of the Supreme Court in 2013 was in their favour, approving the proposal to float a global tender. But the government is yet to implement the judgement, forcing the union representatives to take the matter to the court again. I was told that the next hearing is scheduled in three months’ time.
The union representatives I met sounded very positive about the future. But what about political support, I asked. Since it is election time, are they putting any pressure on the candidates? The response wasn’t enthusiastic. Although KH Muniyappa, the sitting Member of Parliament from Kolar (he was elected to the Lok Sabha for the seventh time in 2014), has worked closely with the members of the 18 BGML unions in the past, he seems to be backing the Karnataka state’s plan to utilise the 12,000 odd acres of real estate and has raised the request in the 16th Lok Sabha to hand over the land to the state government. This hasn’t gone down well with the BGML employee unions (at least the ones I spoke to).
While the ex-employees are still hopeful of a profitable closure, the rest of the town, including the politicians, seem to have moved on from the mining story. It is hardly an election issue. The vendors in the old market of Robertsonpet seem to think that there is no option but to vote for Muniyappa. On the surface, it is the truth. While the Congress and JD(S) were pitted against each other in a closely fought election in 2014, this time both the parties are fighting as a coalition and the BJP’s candidate S Muniswamy, a corporator from Bengaluru, is unknown in the constituency.
One vendor says Muniyappa has the money power to create a last-minute swing. A lady disagrees, proclaiming that the Modi wave will sweep Kolar too. This was the first time since morning that I heard someone mention Prime Minister Modi. At lunch, I tried to talk to the manager of the 60-year-old Hotel Janardhan, but he seems least interested in the elections. Several others too express the same lack of excitement about the elections. They probably don’t think a change in their fortunes is around the corner. The people in this town seem as desolate as the place.
Stuck in a time warp
As one ex-miner put it, when nothing much has happened in 28 years of loyally supporting one candidate, what can happen now? He also reminisced of a time gone by, while flashing his Communist party membership card, when the workers’ movement was better organised and leaders such as CM Arumugham, Comrade Suryanarayana Rao and others were active. He and many others like him seem to be stuck in a time warp, while their children have embraced the new capitalist order, and have left the town to become software engineers, finance professionals, and such.
The many Ambedkar statues spread over the town hint of a political past ruled by Dalit leaders and trade unions such as CITU. The Republican Party of India (RPI), a party with roots in the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF), is still active and won the Assembly election as recently as 2008. Driving past the erstwhile mining offices, the old colonial houses (now occupied by ex-miners), playgrounds, schools, bakeries, churches, clubs and hospitals, I got the sense that time had stopped in KGF since 1956 – the year John Taylor & Sons handed over the operations to the state of Mysore and left for England.
Apart from employment, water and housing seem to be the other main issues across the Kolar constituency. One pet peeve seems to be that despite being so close to Bengaluru, the district hasn’t developed as much as it could have.
I also visited the KGF water works, located a few kilometres away in Bethamangala and built in 1904. The facility is still up and running, but the receding water levels in the tank are alarming and need urgent attention. A lot will depend on the monsoon this year. The facility, although initially set up to supply water only to KGF mines and residents, now supplies to Bethamangala and BEML too. Again, the filtration system and the technology seem unchanged since 1904.
Out of the eight assembly constituencies in Kolar, Mulbagal, KGF and Bangarapet are reserved for Scheduled Castes. In the 2014 elections, while Muniyappa bagged the maximum votes in Srinivasapur, Mulbagal, Kolar and Malur, the runner-up Kolar Kesava of the JD(S) won in Sidlaghatta and Chintamani by a high margin, and EM Narayanswamy of the BJP emerged triumphant in KGF and Bangarapet.
The soft-spoken but shrewd ex-union minister for state, Muniyappa, has been expressing confidence of his chances this time too, despite a number of disagreements with some Congress leaders. There have also been reports of the JD(S) not providing support to his candidature. Muniyappa’s margin of victory in 2014 was a decent 47,850 votes. The BJP has turned a new leaf in its approach to the Kolar constituency by ignoring Dalit leaders like Narayanaswamy, DS Veeraiah and placing confidence in the Kadugodi (a Bengaluru suburb) corporator S Muniswamy.
Will the fatigue of the miners fighting for justice, the anti-incumbency factor, Modi wave, and BJP’s fresh face defeat Muniyappa’s claim to the seat for the eighth consecutive time?
Basav Biradar is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in Bengaluru.
Views expressed are the author's own.