Border Posturing

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Karnataka spends Rs 400 crore on a legislature complex in Belgaum to spite Maharashtra

BANGALORE ~ When it comes to inter-state rivalry, wonders never cease. The Karnataka government has built a massive legislature complex—to be used for a week every year—at Belgaum, 475 km from Bangalore, at a whopping cost of Rs 400 crore. This has expressly been done to consolidate the state’s claim to this city and its surrounding areas. Its northern neighbour Maharashtra is not amused—the region is largely Marathi rather than Kannada speaking, and it has been demanding that it be integrated with it.

States in India tend to be linguistic entities. Karnataka was carved out in 1956 of the erstwhile states of Madras, Mysore and Coorg on the basis of Kannada as a common language spoken across the region. Maharashtra was carved out of the earlier Bombay state on the basis of Marathi. Belgaum, by some quirk of this carve-up, ended up in Karnataka.

That spelt an inter-state dispute that is yet to be settled. Many Marathi speaking corporators in the Belgaum City Corporation have been agitating for a transfer to Maharashtra too, and this local body has even passed resolutions to that effect. At the forefront of this agitation is the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti, a Marathi political party that Karnataka accuses of spreading seditious propaganda. The fight has survived a Centre-appointed committee ruling two decades ago that Belgaum city remain with Karnataka (and only some villages be exchanged).

Belgaum’s new legislature building, with its architectural style based on the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore, Karnataka’s capital, is being hailed as a symbol of Kannadiga pride. “The new legislature building is a powerful symbol displaying territorial intentions that nobody can dislodge that easily,” says Umesh Katti, the state minister who oversaw its completion, “It is a sign that the border issue is settled. It registers in the hearts and minds of people that the Karnataka government is responsive to their needs.”

The building is colossal. Its Assembly hall seats 300, and its Council hall, 100. There is also a 450-seat auditorium, plus 14 meeting halls and 38 ministerial chambers. The outer structure is ready, while interior work is on at a frenetic pace before its first legislature session is held. The dates are likely to be in September, as Karnataka is keen to get President Pranab Mukherjee to inaugurate it. The project was mooted years ago in response to its neighbour’s claims, but received a fillip only once HD Kumaraswamy became Chief Minister in 2006. It was at a heated moment in the Kannada-Marathi tug-of-war in 2007 that the CM had the funds allotted to build a grand legislature building on the Bangalore-Mumbai highway that’s part of India’s Golden Quadrilateral.

Christened Suvarna Vidhana Soudha, commemorating 50 years of the state’s formation day, it was expected to cost Rs 232 crore, but the figure now stands at Rs 391 crore for the structure alone. Estimates suggest the bill could reach Rs 500 crore by the end of August, when it will be ready for occupancy. This apart, money is also expected to be spent on housing legislators, ministers, and their staff, not to mention the police and rest of the administration when the entire entourage moves from Bangalore to Belgaum for a week every year. It would be an exercise reminiscent of Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s forced exodus from Delhi in the 14th century when the emperor shifted his empire’s capital to Daulatabad (with disastrous effects).

The Karnataka government, however, is gung-ho about this grand gesture to stake its claim to Belgaum. It will all work out well, Katti believes. To keep expenses low, the government has invited expressions of interest from hospitality firms to invest in Belgaum, with a rider that rooms should be made available to the government when the Assembly is in session.

Part of the plan is to overwhelm the local political culture of Belgaum, evidently. As far as the state government is concerned, the Belgaum City Corporation is a ‘mischievous’ entity that displays an affinity to Maharashtra that amounts to rank disloyalty. A succession of the city’s mayors have been held in suspicion. One of these mayors, Prabhakar More, even had his face blackened by pro-Kannada activists while on a visit to Bangalore in 2004. This year, the city corporation has been overruled for raking up the issue again, and ‘show cause’ notices have been sent to its corporators—who happen to be a mix of Kannada, Marathi and Urdu speakers.

Belgaum residents, naturally, are unimpressed with the government’s show of magnificence. SD Desai, a Belgaum citizen, says it’s nothing but a Rs 400 crore plus waste of Mughal-scale extravagance. A single sitting a year does not merit anything of the sort. “The money could have been used for better purposes, including developing border villages, which have been starved of funds in this political blame game.”

Yet, it is clearly a matter of prestige for Karnataka, and the project has plenty of support in Bangalore. But this does not mean that Maharashtra is about to give up its claim to Belgaum. Recently, too, the Maharashtra Assembly passed a unanimous resolution for a presidential reference on the border issue. This, despite the fact that the Mahajan Committee—the one that ruled on the dispute two decades ago—had rejected Maharashtra’s claim to the city. All it recommended was an exchange of 247 and 264 villages in the respective states to better suit their linguistic profiles. Maharashtra has now demanded a review of that decision. Karnataka insists that either the report be implemented in toto or status quo be maintained.

Meanwhile, for the region’s common man, the grand structure is yet another mark of political grandiosity to divert attention from real issues: such as a crippling power and drinking water shortage, pervasive corruption, lack of education, weak job opportunities and poor civic amenities. The language dispute has riven a region that desperately needs substantive moves to raise the real quality of people’s lives.

Pro-Kannada politicians claim that with legislators actually visiting Belgaum for Assembly sessions, even if only for a week at a time, the entire area will come into closer developmental focus. It is true that politicians are usually adept at looking after the infrastructure needs of places they frequent. But whether they really care is another question.