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 sugarcane bagasse floats aimlessly with the milk-tea-coloured floodwaters of the Krishna river.
For around 40 Dalit families at Mang Vasathi in Halagbal village, some 10 km from Athani town in Karnataka’s Balagavi, life is like bagasse — the dry residue discarded after extracting the cane juice.
They feel left out and misplaced on the banks of the river. The misplaced becomes displaced for three months from June as the schools welcome a new academic year.
Fleeing the village has become an annual norm for the families from the Scheduled Tribe (ST) Mang community. A pregnant Krishna breaches its banks when the skies open up.
On Sunday, 7 May, the sky was clear and azure, indicating the deep summer. The Krishna is calm and quiet. Three children skipped along a path by a cane field, leading two women.
Plastic pots that the women balanced on their hips matched the blue sky, but punched holes in the deceptive resplendent greenery around.
The pots reflected the other side of Mang Vasthi, which goes parched during summers.
The Mangs were historically associated with village security and professions such as rope- and broom-making, music, cattle castration, tanning, midwifery, executions, and funeral managers.
They were formerly classified as a criminal tribe under the Criminal Tribes Acts of the British Raj.
Mang Vasthi is located around 3 km from the main village. A couple of Muslim families, too, live in the village.
The Mangs are daily wagers in caste Hindu’s farmlands. They are also into dairy farming to raise additional income.
During rains, the floodwaters gush in, turning the village into multiple marooned islands. The road connectivity, too, will remain snapped.
The villagers want to relocate to avoid the annual displacement. “The floods are severe here as the village is upon the Krishna river,” Hanumanth Mang told South First.
“For over 20 years, we have been asking the authorities to relocate us to a better place but they responded only to the upper castes, mostly Lingayats,” he wondered if they are being ignored only because they are Mangs.
In June, the around 40 families of Mang Vasathi pick up their belongings and guide their cattle away before the floodwaters wreak havoc. They pitch tents on the lands of upper castes for three months, before returning to pick up life in the village.
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On their toes
Shifting to tents is not easy. “We pray that no one should have our experience. We have to leave behind our houses and property for three months,” Hanumanth explained.
“Life is so hard for these three months; you would expect the upper caste people to show us some mercy. They do not allow us to stay in one place,” he said, adding that they have to keep finding new places every week amidst torrential showers.
The government hasn’t been helping either, the man claimed. “We barely manage two meals a day during the rains. The government provides us with only a meal a day. It won’t provide us proper accommodation,” he further said.”
“If we demand our rights, the officials misguide, saying houses sanctioned for us have been illegally taken over by the gram panchayat members. We cannot raise our voices too because of our caste,” he narrated the community’s plight.
“If we question, the upper caste people will deny us jobs and it will affect our livelihoods,” Hanumanth, who has two children and grandchildren, added.
Hanumanth’s story is not in isolation. All residents in Mang Vasathi go through the ordeal. He said two people, including a 10-year-old boy, were washed away in the previous flood.
The locality does not have proper access to drinking water, housing facilities, roads, education, and health facilities.
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Village of wilted dreams
Santosh Mang had dreamt of pursuing higher education but circumstances in Mang Vasathi forced him to discontinue his studies after Class 10.
“None of the children here will get a good education because we have to stay away from our houses for three months from June,” he said without hiding his disappointment.
“The children could attend schools only by August after the floodwaters recede. By then, a quarter of the academic year will be over,” added.
Almost all members of the families here work in the fields to make both ends meet.
“Even after 75 years of Independence, there is not even a single graduate in these 40 families,” Santosh smirked while blaming the government for not relocating them.
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A peek into Athani
Athani taluka has a vibrant agriculture-based rural economy.
Sugarcane is the major crop in fertile Athani, and the town has several cane-dependent industries that employ locals and people from Maharashtra.
The Krishna irrigates around 90 percent of the land. Besides sugarcane, sorghum, maize, cotton, and wheat are also grown in Athani. Vineyards and banana plantations, too, dot the landscape.
The town has several prestigious educational institutions from schools to graduate colleges. However, it does not have institutions offering professional courses.
Primary healthcare is available in the town. People depend on Belagavi and Vijayapura and Miraj, and Solapur, and Kolhapur for advanced and specialised treatments.
The town shares a border with Maharashtra’s Jath.
Farmers expressed concern over the hike in fertiliser prices, and increased labour charges. They blamed the government for its failure in ensuring a proper supply of fertilisers and a decent price for sugarcane.
The youth either work in the six sugar factories in and around Athani, or take up farming after graduation. Unemployment is not a serious issue in the region.
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Days of water
At least 10 villages are either nearby or on the banks of the Krishna river. They were flooded for the past three consecutive years.
The authorities have not relocated villages that are frequently hit by floods. However, the majority of the affected people have received proper compensation.
Saptasagar, Nadi Ingalagaon, Darur Hulgabal, Haliyal, Teertha, Nandagaon, and Chinchurwada are among the few flood-hit villages over the past three years.
“We don’t have a proper house. Every year our houses are getting submerged. We have to vacate our houses for at least two weeks during floods,” Dastager Rajasabh, a daily-wage worker and resident of Darur village told South First.
“The government has not done anything to address the issue. They wash their hands of by providing compensation every year. How long do we have to suffer? Why can’t the government relocate us to a better place,” he wondered.
Thousands of families reside in the flood-prone areas in the region.
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Political drama at play
The Athani Assembly constituency witnessed an interesting political drama in the run-up to the 10 May polls.
The BJP has fielded the incumbent MLA, Mahesh Kumathalli, who seems to be watching from the sidelines the fight between his friend, mentor, and Gokak MLA Ramesh Jarkiholi, and Congress’s Laxman Savadi — who, till a month ago, was with the saffron party.
The contest between Jarkiholi — who battling on behalf of Kumathalli — and Savadi in Athani is a keenly watched one in Karnataka.
Senior Lingayat leader Savadi ended his over two-decade-long association with the BJP after the party’s central leadership denied him a ticket. He pledged allegiance to the Congress, which fielded him.
Savadi, representing the BJP, won the Athani Assembly segment three consecutive times in 2004, 2008, and 2013.
In 2018, Mahesh Kumathalli, then in the Congress, defeated Savadi by a thin margin of 2,331 votes. Savadi has been a close aide of Jarkiholi.
Kumathalli was one among the 17 MLAs who defected and helped the BJP replace the Congress-JD(S) coalition government in 2019.
Despite opposition from Savadi, the BJP heeded Jarkiholi’s demand and gave a ticket to Kumathalli in the bypoll. And he registered a thumping victory.
In the 2023 Assembly elections, Savadi demanded a BJP ticket but with intense lobbying and political pressure from Jarkiholi, the party preferred Kumathalli in Athani.
Enraged, Savadi joined hands with Congress.
Sashikanth Padasalgi is the JD(S) candidate. He is contesting for the first time.
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“The fight in Athani is between Savadi and Jarkiholi, not Kumathalli. Jarkiholi has taken the challenge personally and is campaigning more intensively in Athani than in his seat to ensure the defeat of Savadi,” political commentator Channabasayya Itnalmath said.
“In the previous elections, Savadi lost by a wafer margin as he couldn’t campaign properly in his seat. He was one of the star BJP campaigners. His party workers didn’t work properly at the grassroots,” he told South First.
“The voters also decided to give a chance to a new face,” he added.
“Kumathalli didn’t utilise the opportunity as he hardly helped people during Covid-19. He only visited those villages in which he enjoyed good support. People are fed up with him,” he opined.
Itnalmath further said that this election will witness a fierce battle between both parties. “But Savadi has an edge,” he added.
Explaining, he pointed out that the local Lingayat leaders, irrespective of sub-sects, have announced support for Savadi instead of Kumathalli, who belongs to the Lingayat Panchamasali community.
The Lingayats are miffed with the BJP for denying the ticket to a senior community leader.
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Lingayats, Marathas, Muslims, and SCs, and STs are the dominant castes in Athani.
Lingayats have around 60,000 votes, Marathas have over 35,000 votes, SCs and STs have around 30,000, Muslims have over 25,000, and Kurubas have over 15,000.
“People vote for the candidate, not for the party in Athani. Voters consider individual relationships and caste while exercising their franchise,” Itnalmath said.
Athani has around 2.26 lakh voters: About 1.16 lakh men and 1.10 lakh women.