The owners of several iron ore mines in Karnataka are the powerful politicians â an invincible combination against everyone who accuses mining operations of ruining fields, water sources and public health
Karnataka conundrum: G Janardhana Reddy, the state minister who has so much money he can't keep track, is a mining tycoon.
The 42-year-old also helped draft the Bharatiya Janata Party government's state mining policy under which fresh mining leases would be given only to applicants who could "value-add". In other words, industrialists like him.
The owners of several iron ore mines in Karnataka are the state's powerful politicians —an invincible combination against everyone who accuses mining operations of ruining fields, water sources and public health. Reddy exports iron ore to China from the hot and dusty mineral-rich district of Bellary, 290 kilometres north of Bangalore.
"Even I do not know how much money I have made in the last five years… I am currently building a Rs 20,000-crore steel plant in Cudappah (in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh)," a nattily dressed Reddy says emerging from a political meeting.
"My personal worth must be around Rs 1,500 crore," Reddy estimates.
That's more than the cumulative income of over 50 per cent of Bellary's 15 lakh voters, and not a bad showing for a police constable's son who entered business in 1989 by pooling Rs 35,000 with friends to set up a financial savings firm.
Ministers are mining czars in Bellary, building indoor swimming pools while the red dust from their mines pollutes fields and reservoirs. Photo by: Chitrangada Choudhury
Today, Reddy's wealth has translated into two personal helicopters, numerous luxury cars, and vast political power as he cements his party's reversed fortunes on election eve.
Till 1999, the backward Bellary district was undistinguished on India's political map, and a Congress stronghold. The party had won every Lok Sabha election since Independence, and chose Bellary to deliver a win to party head Sonia Gandhi in her debut election against Sushma Swaraj.
Today, things could not be more different.
Three BJP legislators from the district, including Reddy and his elder brother, are ministers in the state cabinet.
After the 2008 Assembly polls, election commissioners speaking at seminars in Delhi and Mumbai criticised the rank display of wealth, saying it was "destroying democracy".
Back in Bellary, the criticism means little.
Reddy laughs off charges of bribing voters, saying: "I don't need to do all that… Deve Gowda [chief of the rival Janata Dal (Secular)] does."
In the slums of Bellary, peopled mostly by Dalits and Muslims, contrary voices tumble out. "The day before the elections, all parties came and gave Rs 1,000 for every voter," Carpenter Gannana (45) says of the Assembly polls. "When I went to the mayor for help some months ago with a small loans government scheme for Dalits, she brushed me off, saying, 'Did you vote for me for free?'"
In his modest home, physician T. Ramanath, son of Tekur Subramaniam, Bellary's three-time Member of Parliament from1947, takes a yellowing album down from a shelf to show five-decade-old pictures of his father breakfasting cross-legged on the floor of their house with a visiting Lal Bahadur Shashtri.
"We became poorer after my father became an MP, because his salary was less than what he had been earning from his legal practice," the doctor says. "Can one say that about any politician today? They are all bribing and making money."
Ramanath is ambivalent about the recent changes in Bellary. "A handful of people have made money from mining. Industrial development is spreading, which is good. But pollution has increased and forests are being cut down.."
A 65-kilometre drive over broken roads leads to the red-smog-clad Lakshmipura village at the heart of Bellary's mining flurry.
Residents like farmer M. Eranna are livid at how the rush for iron ore is turning their world upside down.
Staring at the Lakshmipura Kunte, a vast rainwater reservoir where waters have turned rust red and laced with poison from the iron ore dust, the unlettered farmer in a mud-stained lungi says: "This is the water that once irrigated our farms. Our lands and waters are being polluted, and our forests destroyed. But miners are rich ministers, so no one in the government listens."
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