Ground Report: Ballari gasps for breath as promises gather dust

Though blessed with abundant natural resources, Ballari has been remaining in a state of neglect, and the farmers deprived of livelihoods.

ByMahesh M Goudar

Published May 03, 2024 | 10:00 AM Updated May 03, 2024 | 7:00 PM

Ballari ground report

A gate stood still under the blazing azure sky, barbed-wire fence running on either side creating a thin but impregnable divide as the sun beat down on the fields, now left barren.

The fields spreading over acres in Kumaraswamy Hills and surrounding areas were verdant years ago. They were symbols of prosperity, hope, and life’s vibrance.

Then came a promise that left the land barren, and upended the lives of farmers in seven villages in Karnataka’s Ballari district.

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Promised to doom

Industrialisation seemed promising for the agricultural community in the villages. The Ballari farmers gave up their land, 12,000 acres in total, for setting up industries. They dreamt of a bright future for themselves and the generations to come.

The vertical bar gate has horizontal metal plates with ‘ArcelMittal’ painted on them. The gate and the fence are the only signs of industrialisation that promised economic transformation of the region, besides jobs for each household.

ArcelorMittal was not the only firm that took over the farmlands. Brahmani Industries and National Mineral Development Corporation (NDMC), too, acquired the land promising industrial units.

Around 2,000 farmer families from Kudtini, Haraginadone, Veni Vveneerapura, Janekunte, Kolgal, Vadatti, and Siddamanahalli had handed over their lands in 2010, trusting the promises of a fair price, jobs and a better future.

Today, the farmers stand outside the gate, where the promise ends unmet. No industries materialised though the landed were made landless. The promise has descended to dust, like the grime that covers most of the villages.

The mannina putraru — sons of the soil —  are a disillusioned lot, abandoned by the very authorities they entrusted with their future.

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Ballari farmers feel cheated

The farmers are waging a legal battle, prolonged, with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, mining companies, including the Union government’s NMDC, ruthlessly encroached upon the fertile lands to cart away iron ore.

Despite possessing titles to their lands, farmers face harassment and intimidation, with acres of their precious land lost to mining activities without adequate compensation.

Karnataka Ballari Farmer 2024 Lok Sabha Polls MIning Industries Mittal Brahmani

CITU’s Ballari district president Sathyababu. (South First)

Their livelihoods have been snatched away, and the promised industries failed to come up on the acquired land. The pillars of democracy seem to have turned a blind eye to the plight of the farmers.

“The Karnataka Industrial Development Board (KIDB) had acquired 4,900 acres, 5,000 acres, and 2,000 acres and gave it to ArcelorMittal, Brahmani Industries Limited, and NMDC, respectively, to set up industries,” CITU’s Ballari district president Sathyababu told South First.

“The BJP was in power when (in 2010) the farmers sold their land. The farmers were cheated during price fixation. Demanding more prices, the farmers staged several protests, and even took out a padayatra (foot march) to Bengaluru,” he said.

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Prolonged protest

Sathyababu said the farmers moved the high court and Supreme Court seeking justice. “There are reports that Brahmini Industries purchased land at just ₹5 lakh per acre, and sold the acquired land to Uttam Galva Ferous Limited for ₹18 lakh per acre.”

Gangavathi MLA and mining baron Gali Janardhan Reddy owns Brahmini, the communist leader said.

“Uttam Galva has sought three years to set up its industry,” he said, adding that ArcelorMittal has been non-committal. A Ballari court had ordered a compensation of ₹1.10 crore per acre to farmers. The Supreme Court later upheld the judgment, but the money has not been disbursed.

Sathyababu said Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Industries Minister MB Patil had assured of a Cabinet decision after consulting ArcelorMittal. He warned of intensifying the protest if the government failed to resolve the matter.

Aggrieved farmers have been sitting in protest for the past 500 days at Kudtini, seeking justice. The protesters said the farmers and their children were forced to work as daily wagers to survive.

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Talking tough

“Even after 13 years of acquiring land, no industries have been set up. They promised a job to every family that gave land to these industries. Without industries, farmers are affected as there is no employment or land to take up farming activities,” Jangli Sab, who also gave up his land, told South First.

He said the farmers would forcefully take back their land if the government failed to address their grievance. “After the Lok Sabha elections, we will meet the chief minister again,” he said.

Young farmer Veeresh, 27, from Kudtini, said life has come to a dead end.

“I have lost my home and land to these projects. There is not even a single inch of land left with us. We do not have any employment either. We don’t know whether to live like this,” his voice trailed off.

He sounded determined when he spoke again.

“The government is busy conning the farmers and people. The situation ahead will be very critical. We are ready to give up our lives and take lives to get justice,” he fumed in desperation.

Forced takeover in Ballari

Karnataka Ballari Farmer 2024 Lok Sabha Polls MIning Industries Mittal Brahmani

Social Activist Malagi Ponnappa. (South First)

Forced acquisitions of hundreds of acres by mining companies, including the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC), have left farmers bereft of their livelihoods and dignity.

“Despite having NMDC and private mines company, we are not getting employment. They have forcefully acquired 64 acres of land. The mining companies, including NMDC, harassed us (farmers) and encroached on our land,” social activist and Kamthur resident Malagi Ponnappa alleged.

“They have not even given a single penny as compensation for our land. Those who still have land are getting the government benefits, including the PM Kisan Saman Nidhi Yojana. We are denied the benefits as our lands have been acquired forcibly,” Ponnappa claimed.

Farmer Thimma Reddy told South First that the mining firms were dumping waste on his 3.5 acres, rendering it unfit for farming.

“Each acre is valued at over ₹1 crore. When we approached them seeking our land back, they assaulted us. Even the reserve police personnel were deployed against us. We neither have land nor employment or compensation,” he claimed.

Another farmer Doddamaranna alleged that NMDC encroached on 4.75 acres for mining activities.

“NDMC has acquired our land without our knowledge. I have neither received any money nor signed any papers to give them the land,”  he alleged.

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Trapped in dust

A rain tree spread its canopy over a shed-house covered in a coat of rust-coloured grime at Nandihalli in Sandur. The tree offered little help to prevent the dust from the mines.

The residents resigned to fate, have stopped dusting, as fine particles entered their system, posing a threat to their health.

Karnataka Ballari Farmer 2024 Lok Sabha Polls MIning Industries Mittal Brahmani

Neelamma lashed out at the state government for neglecting mining-affected areas. (South First)

“The dust due to mining activities is adversely affecting our lives. Even the lorries that carry the ore have caused several accidents which go unreported,” Neelamma, a resident of Nandihalli, said.

“Only the rich will survive,” she added. Neelamma said her health has been suffering due to the dust.

Halaiah was more specific. “We are facing heart and kidney issues.” He claimed that the health hazard has claimed several lives. The villagers said they were devoid of proper transportation facilities, and drinking water supply.

The dust has affected the remaining farming activities also. “The yield is decreasing every year,” farmer Kumaraswamy said. “When we approach the officials, they claim that it’s the government road that is kicking up the dust and they can do nothing about it.”

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Irony of being Ballari

Located in the heart of Karnataka, Ballari boasts of natural riches and an untapped industrial promise. From its expansive agricultural lands to its mineral-rich terrain, Ballari stands a testament to the state’s economic diversity and potential for growth.

At the heart of Ballari’s economic prowess lies its agricultural sector, employing a significant portion of the district’s workforce and yielding a bounty of crops including cotton, jowar, groundnuts, and more.

Beyond its agricultural bounty, Ballari boasts a wealth of mineral resources that have long captivated the attention of industry players. Iron ore, manganese, gold, and a myriad of other minerals hide below the landscape.

However, despite its vast mineral wealth, Ballari grapples with the label of being industrially underdeveloped. The emergence of major steel plants, including the iconic Jindal Vijayanagar Steel Limited, signals a potential turning point for the district’s industrial fortunes.

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Battleground Ballari

The Congress dominated the Ballari parliament constituency, reserved for Scheduled Tribe (ST), since 2004. However, the BJP breached the Congress fort and has been remaining undefeated in the past four elections.

AICC’s former president Sonia Gandhi was the last Congress leader to win from the Ballari seat in the parliament elections.

The Ballari Lok Sabha segment consists of eight Assembly constituencies, including four reserved for ST and two for SC. It also includes four talukas of Vijayanagara district.

The Congress has now fielded four-time Sandur MLA E Tukaram against BJP’s senior ST leader and former Karnataka deputy chief minister B Sriramulu. He had represented the constituency in 2014.

A political commentator, who requested anonymity, told South First that Congress fielded a better candidate.

“The Congress will give a tough fight for the BJP in this election. Sriramulu is exposed. His contribution to the development of Ballari was zero during his previous tenure as the MP,” he said.

“Tukaram is a four-time MLA. He has a good name. Sriramulu has not helped the needy. Though Congress has six MLAs in the segment, it is not going to be an easy fight for them as well,” he opined.

In the 2019 polls, BJP’s Y Devendrappa defeated Congress’s VS Ugrappa by a margin of 25,707 votes. The BJP won 49.22 percent of the votes, whereas the Congress managed to gross 47.09 percent.

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Caste equations

Scheduled Tribes are dominant in the Ballari Lok Sabha seat, followed by Scheduled Castes.

Lingayats, Reddy, Muslims, and Christians are the other major castes in this reserved constituency.

There are 18,84,040 votes in the segment. Among them 9,54,914 are women, 9,28,857 are men and 269 are others.

“Caste engineering does not play a role. People consider the party, the candidates’ image and his assurances while exercising their franchise,” the commentator said.

“The guarantees have won the hearts of women in rural areas, whereas it angered men. Meanwhile, youth are more leaning towards the BJP, considering the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindutva factor,” he added.

(Edited by Majnu Babu).