Ballari (Karnataka): The swirls of dust and sweltering heat that greet you in Ballari may prompt you to wonder whether it was the rampant illegal iron ore mining and resultant ecological damage that has fuelled the soaring temperatures. The illegal mining in this small northwestern Karnataka town was put to a stop by the Supreme Court a few years ago, but memories of the period when the earth here was plundered remain fresh in people’s memories. And these memories are not necessarily negative.
“The dust has settled now. You do not see trucks carrying ore from the middle of the city anymore. From 2000 to 2008, when mining flourished here, most people had jobs, even if they were mostly menial. But we did much better then,” said Ravi Nayaka, a fruit seller who is enraged at all the candidates in the electoral fray for not addressing livelihood issues enough in their campaigns.
Basic issues like inadequate drinking water, unemployment and severe power and housing shortages in Ballari have been serious concerns for many decades, and sucessive governments have been unable to address these glaring problems. Even as the city shot to limelight because of G. Janardhana Reddy and his brothers, kingpins of the Rs 16,000 crore illegal mining scam that shook the then B.S. Yeddyurappa-led BJP state government in 2011, Ballari has remained at the fringes of civic development.
The electoral contest in the district and adjoining regions has garnered unprecedented attention, but not for the issues that concern common people. The focus is primarily on the Reddy brothers, who have managed to pull their weight with the BJP to get eight of their associates tickets from Ballari and adjoining districts.
BJP’s doublespeak on corruption
This has put the BJP – which has otherwise made corruption-free governance its primary poll plank and attacked the Siddaramaiah government on this count – in an uncomfortable spot. Ever since the campaign began, the BJP president had maintained that the party had no relations with the Reddys. But all of that changed when tickets were distributed by the party.
Not only did the BJP give tickets to G. Janardhana Reddy’s brothers – G. Somasekhar Reddy and G. Karunakara Reddy – to contest from Ballari city and Harapannahalli in the adjoining Davangere district, it also projected their closest associate, G. Sriramulu, who belongs to the largest schedule tribe in the state, the Nayaka, as BJP’s Adivasi face. Sriramulu, who is currently a Lok Sabha member from Ballari, is contesting from two places – Molakalmuru in the adjoining Chitradurga district and Badami in Bagalkot, against Siddaramaiah. Sriramulu is the only leader apart from BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Yeddyurappa to be given a helicopter to campaign.
Sriramulu’s uncle, Sanna Fakirappa, and his nephew T.H. Suresh Babu, are also contesting from Ballari Rural and Kampli, respectively. Lallesh Reddy, another relative of the former mining barons, is facing home minister R. Ramalingareddy in BTM Layout in Bengaluru. Along with these candidates, it is reported that in at least 15 constituencies in northwest and central Karnataka, Janardhana has got his men to contest on BJP tickets.
Even as the Congress highlighted BJP’s doublespeak on corruption, the saffron party has been doing its best to evade questions. On April 28, the front pages of newspapers flashed the news that Shah has asked state-level BJP leaders to “keep away” from the Reddys. But on the same day, Yeddyurappa was quoted in the back pages as saying that the Reddys would help the party win 10-15 seats.
The rumour mills projected this as some sort of a clash between Shah and Yeddyurappa, but soon the Lingayat leader clarified that it was only after approval from the BJP president that the Reddys and their associates were given party tickets. That should have cleared the air, but Shah remained tight-lipped about the issue. Meanwhile, state BJP spokesperson Vivek Reddy came on the record to say that the party has “made a compromise” by fielding tainted candidates. Despite this discomfort, Modi shared the dais with Somshekhar at a recent election rally.
Said a senior journalist in Ballari, “Without doubt, the BJP gave a new lease of life to the Reddy brothers, who were lying low since their so-called mining empire collapsed. Their traction among the masses had waned ever since the Supreme Court barred Janaradhana Reddy from entering Ballari. But after he got tickets distributed according to his wishes, he has risen again from the ashes.”
Janardhana has been camping at his farmhouse just outside the border of Ballari in Molakalmuru (from where Sriramulu is contesting) and is pulling all the political strings – from campaign strategies to bargaining with the BJP. “Janardhana is managing the elections. It is he who insisted that Sriramulu contests from Molkalmuru. That way, we will be able to influence the elections even outside Ballari,” Somashekhar told The Wire when asked about his younger brother’s role in elections.
Corruption a non-issue in Ballari
Even as the rise of the Reddy brothers has caught national attention, corruption does not figure much in day-to-day public discussion. “A plausible reason for this,” the journalist who declined to be named said, “could be because the opposition too has fielded tainted candidates, although the charges that are levelled against them may be minor in front of the Reddys.”
Ballari has nine assembly segments, five of which are reserved for scheduled tribes. Contesting Somashekhar is Anil Lad, the sitting Congress MLA, who is also a mining baron and facing a case in connection with illegal mining. He had won the city seat by more than 18,000 votes when Somasekhar did not contest. In 2008, the senior Reddy had defeated Lad by a little over 1,000 votes. Speaking to The Wire, Lad pointed out what he said was “the contradiction within BJP”.
“The BJP has to clarify whether Yeddyurappa and Shah are on the same page as far its association with the Reddys is concerned. Seven people are contesting from Janardhana Reddy’s family alone. He was behind bars for 3.5 years. And yet all the top BJP leaders attended his daughter’s wedding, in which he spent more than Rs 500 crore even as the nation was suffering a huge cash crunch just after demonetisation. I want to ask Modiji, did you take any action against them? Where did the money come from?” he asked.
When asked about the corruption charges he himself is facing, he said, “I have been framed in a CBI case but the case is not like those against the Reddys. I am the 18th accused out of a total of 45 in the case. I got bail within six days. My offence says that a person who got iron ore from me paid me Rs 2 crore in cash. Janardhana Reddy has 63 cases of corruption and serious offences, which includes cash-for-bail, border-changing, destroying a temple etc. against him.”
Similarly, in Ballari Rural, the Congress has fielded B. Nagendra, whose company Eagle Traders, faces charges of illegally transporting iron ore. He has also served a jail term. Nagendra’s nephew Murali Krishna also managed to get a Congress ticket from the Siruguppa reserved seat.
The grand old party has also fielded Anand Singh, a former BJP MLA who switched sides, from the Vijayanagara seat. Singh is facing 20 cases in relation to the illegal transport of iron ore and mining. Ironically, the BJP has fielded former Congress MLA H.R. Gaviappa against him. Other parties like the JD(S) too have fielded candidates who face a variety of charges related to the mining scam.
It is against this backdrop that Ballari’s electorate is struggling to make their choice. All parties have considered the “winnability” of candidates more than their propriety. People still remember the famous padyatra that Siddaramaiah undertook against illegal mining in 2010 before he became the chief minister. But with the Congress too fielding tainted candidates, their hopes of clean governance have been jolted.
“Everyone’s hands are dirty. It is just a question of degree,” said Tapal Ganesh, the whistleblower in the infamous mining scam, who is contesting on a Janata Dal (United) ticket against Lad and Somashekar.
What awaits Ballari?
In 2013, four of the nine Ballari seats were won by the Congress. But with all the bigwigs in contest, the equation may drastically change. The Reddys had floated the BSR Congress under Sriramulu to contest separately, because of which the BJP had to face great losses. Now with the Reddys back in the party fold, the BJP hopes to gain in Ballari.
Many in Ballari told The Wire that a large number of people lost their jobs after the Supreme Court passed strictures against illegal mining. Today, only around ten mines are operational, as mining has been largely streamlined. “More than 200 mines were operational. Many of them benefited from Chinese demand in the last decade. But as mining stopped to a great extent, a majority of people migrated to different places to look for work; the government failed to generate enough employment in the area,” said the journalist.
“Today, JSW Steel, the world’s sixth-largest steel plant, is located around 40 km away from Ballari town in Toranagullu. As the Jindal-owned company has applied for captive mining, people in Ballari fear that the small- and medium-scale mining companies which generated employment locally will all be gone. Jindal will bring labourers from outside, as it has done in other states. The end of illegal mining may usher in monopoly mining, which can be even more disastrous,” he added.
Santosh Hegde, the then Lokayukta, in his scathing 2011 report on Reddys-led illegal mining, called Ballari a “republic” where Indian rules and regulations had little value. In 2018, the Reddys are back with greater vigour, with the BJP’s political patronage.
The CBI, which has been investigating cases of illegal export of ore worth Rs 12,000 crore, has been slowly dropping all charges against the Reddy-owned Obulapuram Mining Company. It has cited mostly technical reasons to exonerate them. Their confidence is so high that Janardhana in a recent speech claimed that the CBI has dropped all cases against him, although the agency hasn’t announced that.
In private meetings, well before the BJP declared its list, Janaradhana had been saying that the BJP has entrusted him with the responsibility of around 45 seats in six districts. He is reported to have indicated to the party that if the BJP comes to power, they would want Sriramulu as the deputy chief minister. When asked about this, Somasekhar told The Wire, “All of us are fighting under the leadership of Sriramulu. He is the tallest Adivasi leader in the state. If the party gives him the responsibility, we would all be happy.”
Lad is of the opinion that the Reddy brothers have a “win-win” situation at hand. “If they win here, they will throw their weight around. After all, they have put all their money and energy into the BJP’s campaign. If they lose, they will bargain with the Centre to put them in important positions.”
Ballari first shot to the limelight when BJP leader Sushma Swaraj contested from here against Sonia Gandhi in 1999 general elections. The Reddy brothers became prominent in BJP’s scheme of things as they threw all their weight behind Swaraj. She did not eventually win, but the Reddys found an entry into the saffron party’s private chambers. In the previous Yeddyurappa government, all of them enjoyed plush ministries and positions. It appears that the BJP was just waiting for the noise around them to fade before it can actively use them electorally again.