Ground Report: JD(S), BJP locked in tight fight in caste-conscious Devadurga — as children toil in chilli fields

Besides price rise, alcohol addiction among men, unscientific practises and abject official apathy make women cry in the ST segment.

ByMahesh M Goudar

Published Apr 20, 2023 | 3:43 PMUpdatedApr 20, 2023 | 4:36 PM

Ground report Devadurga

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.

It’s summer vacation and 10-year-old Reshma* cannot rub her eyes.

Even as children of her age elsewhere attend summer camps, making friends and picking up new hobbies, Reshma of Masarkal village at Devadurga (previously Deodurga) in Karnataka’s Raichur is busy segregating spicy red chillies.

The Class V student is not the only child who is braving the sun beating down at over 40 degrees Celsius.

Hundreds of Tempos, autorickshaws, and other vehicles, jampacked with children and women, head for the farms in and around Devadurga town early in the morning.

The children, as young as eight, work under the merciless summer sun from 8 am to 5 pm for ₹400 to ₹500 a day. The pay is on par with the women working in the dusty fields.

Minors working in the fields under the scorching sun reflect a grim reality: Devadurga’s socio-economic condition has not changed much since 1979.

The Gurupadswamy Committee

The Gurupadswamy Committee, which was constituted in 1979 to study child labour and to suggest measures to tackle it, observed that as long as poverty continued, it would be difficult to eliminate child labour.

It also noted that any attempt to abolish child labour through legal recourse would not be practical.

The panel recommended a ban on child labour in hazardous areas and to regulate and ameliorate the working conditions in other sectors.

Forty-four years after the committee was formed, the perspiring children in the fields of Devadurga cannot rub their irritated eyes without risking capsaicin — the phenolic chemical that gives the tanginess to red chillies — burning them.

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Deceptive verdancy

Reshma and her mother take a Tempo to the field every morning during the chilli-harvesting season and return exhausted in the evenings.

Karnataka Elections Unemployment

Goods vehicles ferrying child labourers is a common sight in Devadurga. (South First)

“If we work during the summer vacation, we can buy textbooks, pencils, pens, and clothes for the upcoming academic year,” she told South First.

“It will also help my family financially,” Reshma beamed with pride.

Hills surround Devadurga, and its verdant landscape gives an impression of prosperity. It is deceptive.

In reality, it is one of the most backward taluks in Karnataka.

Poverty, unemployment, lack of educational and health facilities, farming issues, pathetic roads, and scarcity of drinking water are among the several ills that have been dogging the Devadurga Assembly constituency for decades.

The segment is reserved for candidates from Scheduled Tribes (STs).

Agriculture drives Devadurga’s economy. Crops such as paddy, chilli, maize, sorghum, groundnut, and cotton occupy large swathes of land. The town is also known for its handicrafts, weaving, and pottery.

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The forgotten land

Ask directions to the baobab tree and the villagers will blink. Rephrase it in Kannada and they will wax eloquent about the more than five-centuries-old hale dodda dappa mara (the old, big, thick tree).

Baobab tree on Government College campus

The baobab tree on the Government College campus stands as if caught in a time warp. (File photo: Abhilash1K/Wikimedia Commons)

Some 60 kilometres from Raichur town, the baobab has pride of place on the Government College campus. It stands as if caught in a time warp, far away from its native Madagascar, mainland Africa or Australia.

The baobab is not alone in witnessing time passing by.

The Devadurga town has a rich history dating back to the Maurya and Chalukya dynasties. It was even under the rule of the Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1646).

The region has around 10 neglected monuments and sites of archeological importance.

The Deodurga Fort,  believed to be constructed by the Vijayanagara kings, has lost plastering, and stands with its bricks exposed to the elements.

The region has seen its golden days before forgetting to keep pace with the changing times — or ignored, except during election season.

This apathy has forced Reshma and several other children to toil under the blistering sun.

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The bane of alcoholism

Poverty and alcoholism often go hand-in-hand. Alcohol addiction is another issue that Devadurga has been facing.

Karnataka Farmers Elections

Shivamma, a farmhand, is not happy with the BJP government reducing the rice to 6 kgs under PDS. (South First)

Shivamma is a farmhand living in Masarkal. “Life has become difficult ever since the BJP government reduced the rice under the public distribution system to six kilograms and stopped giving cereals and cooking oil,” she said.

The rice supply was slashed to supplant it with finger millet (ragi), leaving the villagers at the mercy of private grocers.

“We have to buy everything from the grocery shops and the prices have skyrocketed,” she told South First.

“If I don’t bring my children to work, the whole family will go to sleep on empty stomach,” Shivamma said.

The women in the village also pointed to another reason for forcing the children to work in the fields: Their husbands are alcohol addicts.

Alcoholism is the bane of several poor neighbourhoods across the world. Devadurga is no exception.

Limited employment opportunities, lower levels of social cohesion and social control over deviant behaviors, higher alcohol outlet density, or the disproportionate concentration of stressful life experiences lead to the use of alcohol, studies have found.

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Liquor flows in Devadurga

Poverty and unemployment are major problems in Devadurga where liquor flows like the waters of the Narayanapura Right Bank Canal.

Karnataka Elections Farmers

Basulingamma wants the authorities to check the sale of illegal liquor in Devadurga. (South First)

“At least one person falls ill each day in our village due to excess consumption of alcohol in our village,” Basulingamma, another farm worker, told South First.

“Besides taking the lives of several men, alcoholism also throws many families into the streets. This is also the leading cause of child labour in the taluka,” she said.

Basulingamma has lost a family member to alcohol. She is helpless like several other women in the taluk.

“The illegal liquor sale is controlled by the local political leaders. If we complain, their men will trash us brutally. No one dares to question them,” she explained their plight.

Failing to hold back tears, Basulingamma said the government is reaping good profits by selling liquor.

“We are not opposing the sale of alcohol but the authorities concerned should put a stop to the illegal liquor sale across Devadurga,” her voice crackled.

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Home to many problems

Devadurga Assembly segment.

Devadurga Assembly segment.

Besides poverty and unemployment, issues related to education, health, farming, inadequate infrastructure, and drinking water, too, bog down the ST-reserved Assembly segment.

The town has good educational facilities till Class X. Students have to then depend on other cities like Raichur, Kalaburagi, and Bengaluru for higher education. The town doesn’t have any professional college except a government-run polytechnic.

Though the town has sound primary health facilities, people are dependent on other cities for advanced treatment for serious ailments.

Unemployment is severe in the region, which does not have any industry providing jobs in large numbers. Many people migrate to Hyderabad, Bengaluru, parts of Maharashtra, or Goa in search of employment.

People claimed that the migration has reduced by 50 percent after most of the region got irrigated in recent years.

Irrigation, however, is only one among several factors that drives a sound agriculture-based economy.

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Issues remain unsolved

“Though around 90 percent of the farmlands are irrigated, several farm issues have remained unresolved for the past many decades,”  Devadurga’s Karnataka Raitha Sangha president Ramanna Nayak told South First.

Karnataka Elections Farmer

Devadurga’s Karnataka Raitha Sangha president Ranganna Nayak listed the farm-related issues. (South First)

“We get water from the Narayanapura Right Bank Canal (the Krishna River) but it won’t reach the tail-end farmers due to the poor canal network. The candidates make promises during the polls and forget them soon after getting elected,” he lamented.

Similar to many other regions, pricing is also an issue in Devadurga. “The farmers don’t get a scientific price for their crops, specifically paddy,” Nayak said.

“Since this is an election year, we are getting good prices for the crops. Once the elections are over, the prices are brought down (by those who control the market) and farmers are again hit,” he pointed out.

Nayak also alleged that private traders control the market in Devadurga — not the Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC).

Political Devadurga 

The Janata Dal (Secular), Congress, and BJP won the past three elections in Devadurga, respectively.

Voters claimed the fight this time will be between the JD(S) and the BJP. The Congress is irrelevant in the segment, they said.

The JD(S) has fielded K Karemma, who contested as an independent candidate in the 2018 Assembly polls and finished third.

The BJP has nominated former minister and incumbent MLA K Shivanagouda Nayak. He had defeated A Rajashekar Nayak of the Congress by a comfortable margin of 21,045 votes in May 2018.

The Congress has fielded, Shreedevi Nayak, daughter of four-time Raichur MP Venkatesh Nayak.

“This election is likely to witness a tight fight between JD(S) and BJP. The main reason behind supporting JD(S) is the irrigation works carried out by former prime minister HD Deve Gowda,” said local political commentator Shivakumar.

“The people still remember his endeavours that enriched the lives of lakhs of farmers in Devadurga and the surrounding talukas,” he told South First.

“Deve Gowda-initiated irrigation works took thousands of families out of poverty and reduced migration to a certain extent in rural areas,” he pointed out.

Shivakumar felt that the incumbent MLA, too, enjoys a good rapport. “He has done a lot of development works during his tenure.”

“A majority of the people belonging to SC and ST communities are happy with the six percent reservation quota hike and are likely to support the BJP. The Congress remains irrelevant because it has not done anything significant,” he added.

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The caste factor

SCs, STs, Lingayats, Kurubas, and Muslims are the dominant communities in the segment. SCs and STs combined have over 1.25 lakh votes, which accounts for nearly half of the total votes.

Lingayats have around 36,000 votes, Kurubas 34,000 votes, and Muslims, 25,000 votes in the segment.

“People here vote based on caste and image of the candidate. Only the supporters of JD(S) don’t consider anything other than the irrigation works of Deve Gowda,” Shivakumar further said.

The constituency has 2.27 lakh voters: 1.15 lakh women and 1.12 lakh men.

*(The child’s real name has been withheld).