The bandh has been called – but the Belagavi administration hasn’t declared a holiday for schools and colleges. Shops are set to open shutters, public transport set to operate as usual.

As parties tone down statehood demand will north Ktaka bandh actually take off
news Politics Wednesday, August 01, 2018 - 20:08

Firoz, Asif and Ram shake their heads, almost in unison, when they are asked if they will close their shops on Thursday. "I have heard the calls for the bandh, but unless people come and object, I will be going about my business as usual," says Firoz Ibrahim Balekundri, an apple trader at the Central Bus Stand (CBT) in Belagavi. Firoz's words are echoed by most business owners in the area around the busy bus stand.  

The call for a bandh, in support of a separate North Karnataka state, is from organisations including the Uttara Karnataka Vikasa Vedike and Uttara Karnataka Horata Samiti, with support from seers and farmer groups. But thanks to a lukewarm response from residents in the northern districts of the state, the bandh is threatening to die down even before it begins.

At the time of writing, the Belagavi district administration was yet to declare a holiday for schools and colleges. Businesses in the town are set to open shutters and public transport is set to operate as usual.

“Everyone is waiting to see if the protests will actually take place and then decide to close shutters," says Firoz.

A changing tune

A pre-cursor to the bandh was held on Monday when around 30 seers along with BJP leaders BS Yeddyurappa and Umesh Kathi protested at the Suvarna Soudha. In Belagavi, where a mix of Marathi and Kannada speakers reside, the bandh generated little reaction. The front page of 'Tharun Bharat', a popular Marathi paper in the town published a report headlined "Row over demand for separate north Karnataka".  

However, it was clear that the tune had changed; from a protest for a 'separate state', it had now become a protest for 'the development of North Karnataka'. B Sriramulu, a BJP MLA from Molakalmuru in Chitradurga, who had earlier supported the call for a separate state, also issued a clarification.

"The demand from MLAs and seers is clear – the region needs to be developed. The demand for a separate state has come from a few organisations. We do not identify with it," says Anil Benake, a BJP MLA from Belagavi North constituency.

His words are echoed by BD Hiremath, an advocate from Dharwad and member of the Uttara Karnataka Vikasa Vedike, who clarified that the group is no longer demanding a separate North Karnataka state, but only asking for the region to be developed.

"When the Suvarna Soudha was inaugurated in Belagavi, the then President had remarked that this should be a power centre to take decisions. However, six years later, not a single department has happened, nor are top IAS officers who have the power to take decisions working out of here. We are protesting to draw the attention to this disparity, and to pressurise the government," says Hiremath, speaking to TNM.

Chandrashekhar Shivacharya, a seer from Hukkeri Mutt, too, distanced himself from the calls for a separate state. "All seers are in favour of development for the region. We believe our region has been neglected compared to the southern districts,” he says. He also says that CM Kumaraswamy had given assurances to all the seers that the region's development will be a priority for the coalition government in power.

What ails Belagavi?  

Noted Kannada activist Ashok Chandargi observes that the anger of farmer groups in the region is, particularly, due to the implementation of the third phase of the Upper Krishna project. And the demand for a separate state itself, he says, does nothing to address this concern.

The Supreme Court has permitted the Karnataka government to increase the height of the Almatti dam from the present 519.6 metres to 524 metres. The move is expected to submerge as many as 22 villages and 1.2 lakh acres of land in Vijayapura and Bagalkot districts.

"If the height of the dam is raised, 130 tmc of water can be drawn, but the process of rehabilitating the submerged villages is expected to cost Rs 70 lakh crore. How will forming a separate state help in this process?" asks the activist, who also held a press conference in Belagavi highlighting the discrepancies in the demand for a separate state.

Ashok Chandargi along with members of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike at Belagavi

Another issue plaguing the region is the long-standing Kalasa-Banduri-Nala project, and the dispute over the Mahadayi river with neighbours Goa. The Karnataka government plans to divert 7.56 tmc of water from the Mahadayi river to the Malaprabha river to meet the drinking water needs of Hubballi-Dharwad and surrounding villages. The Panchal Tribunal is expected to deliver its verdict in the case before August 20.

"Even if the verdict goes Karnataka's way it will only gain 1-1.5 tmc of water in Kalasa. To gain an additional 2 tmc, it will have to build a 5 km Nala which will again be a 200 crore project," Ashok says.

Will the pressure tactic actually work?

Ashok and BD Hiremath both agree that the recent calls for protests are a "pressure tactic" to force the government to release funds for the development of the northern districts. The activists pointed out that the Suvarna Soudha, inaugurated with fanfare in 2012, was barely used by decision makers. "Rs 5 crore per year is spent on maintaining the building and we believe it needs to be used by elected representatives and top IAS officers," Ashok adds.

Meanwhile, as a protest is planned by the Belagavi Raitha Morcha from Killar to Channamma Circle in the town – the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike is planning a counter protest in support of a 'Akhand Karnataka' at the DC office.

"We have received permissions for these two protests. We will be vigilant and post officers at junctions early tomorrow," says Vijay Murgundi, a police official at Belagavi Market Police Station.

However, he, like the rest of the town is waiting to see if the bandh will go ahead as planned.