Ground Report: Congress and BJP locked in a fierce battle in Chittapur where bonded labour thrives

The BJP has given ticket to rowdy-sheeter Manikanth Rathod. He is facing around 40 criminal cases in at least five districts.

ByMahesh M Goudar

Published May 02, 2023 | 8:00 AMUpdated May 02, 2023 | 8:00 AM

Ground Report: Congress and BJP locked in a fierce battle in Chittapur where bonded labour thrives

With the Karnataka Assembly elections 2023 just days away, South First is bringing you ground reports from key constituencies. This series brings you voices from the ground, the mood of the voters, and issues that matter — as well as those that don’t — as people make up their minds on who they will elect in the upcoming Assembly elections.

The month of Chaithra in the Hindu calendar brings with it the joy and festivities of Ugadi. In Chittapur, it also marks the beginning of a new year of bonded labour.

The task gets heavier and the body weakens as the sun becomes hotter. Mallikarjun S of Chittapur, however, does not have time for a breather as his callused hands drive a pair of oxen tilling the field under the cruel April sun.

Mallikarjun is one among many of Chittapur’s bonded labourers. The social evil continues unabated in the region, despite Parliament passing the Bonded Labour System (Abolishment) Act in 1976.

Life has been tough for Mallikarjun, hailing from a Scheduled Caste (SC) family.

“I have been working as a bonded labourer for the past 30 years. Life has remained the same and nothing has changed for me and my family,” he told South First.

Mallikarjun works from 5 am to 3 pm in the fields every day to repay the landlord.

“Bonded labour is rampant in the region. We work for the landlords 365 days a year. The landlords make an advance payment of ₹1 lakh a year or ₹50,000 every six months. The bond will be from Ugadi to Ugadi,” the man said as he stopped for a photograph.

Life in the backyard

Mallikarjun provided a glimpse of life in society’s ignored and forgotten backyard.

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Mallikarjun S, a Dalit, working as a bonded labour for the past three decades in Chittapur. (South First)

“If we don’t work a day, we have to work an extra day. The government has not come to our rescue,” Mallikarjun, lamented.

Mallikarjun, a father of eight, has a large family to feed. Despite toiling hard for 10 hours a day, he fails to provide enough for the family. Availing the benefits of government schemes, too, is beyond his means — for a different reason.

“Life has become tough due to the increase in the prices of necessary items. If we want an independent life by availing the benefits of government schemes, the officials demand bribes when we approach them,” he said.

“Where will I find the money to bribe them? The elected members hardly respond to our issues,” the man added.

Life has taught him not to believe in elections or the government.

“I couldn’t even give quality education to my children due to my poor financial condition. I don’t have any hope in elections since they don’t make any difference in our lives,” a visibly distraught Mallikarjun said,

Besides working on the farms, the bonded labourers are also required to wash clothes, clean utensils, massage landlords, clean mangers, and perform other domestic chores.

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External view

Away from the farmlands, Chittapur town presents a different picture.

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Chittapur at a glance. (South First)

It boasts of rich cultural heritage and hosts several ancient temples and monuments, including the famous Sri Lakshmi Chandrala Parameshwari Temple.

Sri Lakshmi Chandrala Parameshwari Temple is said to be around 800 years old.

In 1986, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) found four Ashoka edicts on the floor and the foundation stone of the temple. The ASI was then excavating the area after the collapse of the Mahakali temple, a sub-shrine,

Chittapur is also known for its polished stones and pigeon pea. The black soil — or regur — of the region provides nutrients to pigeon pea, sorghum, sugarcane, and other legumes.

Most farmers are dependent on rains to irrigate their fields though the taluka has two rivers, the Bheema and Kagini.

Recently, Chittapur emerged as an industrial hub with several major companies setting up offices in the town and its surrounding areas. This has helped to boost the local economy and provide employment to many.

The sitting MLA, Priyank Kharge of the Congress, has set up an education hub at Nagavi village. The hub has ensured quality education with hostel facilities for rural students.

For higher education, the youth are dependent on Kalaburagi, Hubballi, and other nearby cities.

Chittapur has primary healthcare facilities, but for advanced treatment, people travel to Kalaburagi, Vijayapura, Yadgir and surrounding districts.

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Alienated at home

The voters said several issues such as poor roads, unemployment, and lack of quality medical care remain unaddressed.

Priyank Kharge, the sitting MLA. (Facebook)

Santosh Rathod, an engineering graduate living in Mogla Thanda, raised the issue of road connectivity.

“The condition of the road to my village is so bad that we have to cross a stream. Despite appealing multiple times, the sitting MLA has not developed the road,” he told South First.

“During the monsoon, we have to carry patients on our shoulders to the hospital as there is no proper motorable road. I lost one of our relatives during the rain. Even the drinking water supply is poor. If we raise our voice, we will be targeted by the MLA’s followers,” he alleged.

Around 120 families residing in Mogla Thanda 1 and Mogla Thanda 2 do not have proper roads and drinking water supply. Their pleas to officials and the MLA to fix the problems are yet to be heard.

Dashrath Rathod, a contract employee of Orient Cements in Chittapur, raised another issue.

“We gave our lands to set up Orient Cements. As promised, the company hired us but only on a contract basis. They can terminate the contract at any time. We gave our lands but did not get permanent jobs,” he said.

“Despite having the required education qualification, factories hire locals only for low-grade jobs. They prefer outsiders for higher level posts and corruption is rampant in this company too. This is not acceptable,” he claimed.

“They have not given jobs to all families that have given up land. Those who lost both land and job are migrating to Pune, Mumbai, Mangaluru, Bengaluru, and other cities in search of better livelihoods,” he fumed.

Many people alleged that the factories in the town hardly recruit locally.

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AICC president’s son vs rowdy sheeter

AICC president Mallikarjun Kharge’s son and former Karnataka minister Priyank Kharge is eyeing a hat-trick in the May 10 election from Chittapur Assembly seat.

Manikantha Rathod from Chittapur assembly constituency

Manikanta Rathod is the BJP candidate in Chittapur Assembly constituency. (Sourced)

However, political analysts opined that it will be a close fight between the Congress and the BJP in the seat reserved for SC candidates.

Manikanta Rathod, a man with 40 criminal cases against him in at least five districts, is the BJP candidate. The JD(S) has fielded Subhash Chandra Rathod, also a first-timer like the BJP candidate.

In 2018, Priyank Kharge defeated the BJP’s Valmik Naik by a margin of 4,393 votes.

“This Assembly election is likely to witness a close fight between the Congress and the BJP. Though the BJP has fielded a rowdy sheeter, he has a good rapport with the rural populace. The youths are rallying behind him,” local political commentator Shivakumar K told South First.

Related: Antecedents no bar as parties field candidates with criminal records

The Kharge effect

“Chittapur witnessed development only after Kharge was elected. During his first tenure, he improved roads and addressed drinking water issues in many areas. He also stressed improving education infrastructure by setting up a model education hub in Nagavi.” he said.

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Mogla Thanda does not have proper roads. (South First)

“However, he didn’t continue the good work during his second tenure. The roads, mainly in rural areas, have been completely damaged and a few areas are facing water shortage. Moreover, he is hardly available in the constituency and is heavily dependent on certain corrupt party workers,” Shivakumar claimed.

He opined that people are looking for a change. Manikanta is facing around 40 cases and has been convicted in three. In all three convictions, he managed to get stay orders.

“His social works have impressed many people, especially the youth in the rural areas,” he said. Manikanta Rathod belongs to the influential Banjara community.

The JD(S) doesn’t have much of a presence in Chittapur.

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‘Messiah of the poor’

The Banjaras are angry with the BJP over the internal reservation and have decided against supporting the saffron party in several Assembly constituencies.

However, in Chittapur, the community has decided to throw its weight behind Manikanta Rathod.

“We admit that BJP has done injustice to Banjaras but we still support the party hoping that it will work for the community in the coming days. Kharge has done nothing for us; we want new and young faces to represent us in the Karnataka Assembly,” Santosh, a voter from the Banjara community, said.

He further asserted his belief in Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his vision.

“Manikanta Rathod is the messiah of the poor. He has carried out many social works and served food for the poor until the elections were declared. We want to support a leader who responds to our grievances and is available in the segment,” Santosh added.

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Caste matters

Scheduled castes and tribes, Lingayats and Muslims are the dominant castes in the Chittapur Assembly segment.

SCs and STs combined have over 85,000 votes, Lingayats have around 40,000, and Muslims account for more than 30,000 votes.

“The people here consider development and caste while exercising their franchise,” Shivakumar said.

Of the 2,33,594 voters in the segment, 1,16,970 are men and 1,16,624 are women.