A deserted iron ore mine in Sandur, Karnataka. The economy of the entire Bellary district was always driven by iron ore mining (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)
A deserted iron ore mine in Sandur, Karnataka. The economy of the entire Bellary district was always driven by iron ore mining (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

How Bellary went from boom to bust

  • Between 2006 and 2011, Bellary saw a massive boom, until the Supreme Court banned mining in the district in 2011, when the illegalities and environmental degradation came to light
  • The dusty city in Karnataka is a symbol of how the collapse of a crony capitalist enterprise can destroy progress

Bellary: In the overlapping Andhra-Karnataka cultural region where the city of Bellary is located, there is a proverbial expression in Telugu. Roughly translated, it means: “Life has become like the Bellary bus stand." This is often deployed when an individual’s life is perceived to be in tatters, wasted and utterly disorganized. However, the metaphor of a rickety bus stand, today, like in the past, symbolizes the entire city’s dilapidated existence.

But, for a very short period, Bellary had developed ambition. It wanted to magically transform itself into a metropolis somewhere between 2006 and 2011. The city wanted to recreate the spectacle and splendour of the “forgotten Vijayanagar empire", rather quickly, just like the bunch of men who dreamed its transformation had become princes, overnight. But when those men, led by mining baron and politician G. Janardhan Reddy, bit the dust, the city’s dream, too, was over.

As we stand at the cusp of 2020, when an uncertain economic prognosis stymies quality expansion of the urban, Bellary stands as a symbol of what can go horribly wrong in any corner of India. It was a dream that was lost long before many tier-II towns awoke to one. The dream that slipped into a delusion was built by, and around, one person and his cabal. That in short was nothing but a crony capitalist enterprise—political power met mining windfall to create a city.

Reddy Republic

In a catchy epithet that the media coined over a decade ago, Bellary was not merely a city or a district, but was a “Reddy Republic". When the first Bharatiya Janata Party government was formed in Karnataka and south India, in 2008, Reddy was the infrastructure and tourism minister, his older brother was Bellary’s MP, his younger brother was the city’s first mayor, and his closest friend was health minister. The Reddys helped instal that government, and were known to control it. This concentration of political power was what made their gargantuan ambition for the city plausible.

In early 2009, in no less a place than the upper House of the Karnataka legislature, Reddy had said “Bellary belongs to us." Ironically, for a man who so daringly staked claim to the city, the Supreme Court banned his very entry into it in 2015. He had been in jail since 2011 for over three years after being charged with illegal mining. When he was given bail, one of the conditions was that he should stay away from the city.

Before we come to what Reddy and his men dreamt for the city, let us capture its present ruin. As you approach Bellary city from Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, the change is unmissable. The city is about 25km from the interstate border and you will know the transition when it happens. You leave behind smooth roads, lush green irrigated lands and acres of gently swaying sunflower fields with windmills at the far edges, looking like art installations.

As you drive on the Bellary-Krishnapatnam Port road, the throttling of the city’s dream is apparent. If the stalled expansion of the state highway kicks up more dust to what already exists, the switch that keeps happening between torn and semi-torn surface cuts down the speed drastically. Then, you start seeing installations of a different kind—half-complete concrete pillars with spiky rods that look like rusty crowns. People no longer remember the projects for which these pillars sprang up.

Sanganna, a villager from Joladarashi, quipped: “We don’t know why these pillars were put up, but it is useful to paste posters, our cattle also rub their backs against them, and of course our dogs have a new post to mark their territory." Further down, there is a stand-alone underpass at the intersection with no functionality. It is filled with what is known in Karnataka as “Bellary jaali" (prosopis juliflora).

There are also proverbial Bellary bus stands en route. When we are almost entering the city, in Kakkabevinahalli, this reporter comes across a higher primary school. The black granite plaque outside reads: “Renovation of Primary School Compound Wall & Sanitation Facilities Sponsored by BMW". The date is 20 December 2011, just before the embers of the city’s ambition died out. The luxury car brand finds its name etched in the unlikeliest of places.

The city centre and its outer edges are undistinguishable. There are ill-maintained double-lane roads that partially crisscross the 81 sq. km of the city. There are also cattle at every short distance that refuse to end their siesta. Locals reveal that it was in 2008-09 that Reddy, as district in-charge minister, decided to expand certain existing roads to double-lane ones, and also create a couple of new roads. This was about hastily dressing up a sleepy town as a city. It had anyway been upgraded just then from a city municipal council to a corporation.

All roads lead to...

The locals whisper that most of these double-lane roads actually led you to Reddy and his associates’ newly acquired properties. They suspect that the focus was on inflating the city’s real estate fortunes than altruistically build infrastructure. “New roads should have led to new businesses, nothing of the sort happened. There was only an artificial increase in the price of land that refuses to come down even today despite the absence of development. Everything was sudden and unplanned. The Reddy brothers had captured the administration. Nobody could raise their voice," said Manohar, an accountant at a hotel.

The stillborn nature of the city is most apparent in the government sports complex that has in its horizon the Bellary fort. Journalist Narasimha Murthy explained that during Reddy’s time, large parts of the stadium was broken down with the plan to upgrade it to “international standards". But he could not rebuild in time. The unused basketball court where the hoop and board are outside the boundary wall is just another example of an entangled mess visible elsewhere in the city.

There are many other educational, charitable and residential projects of the Reddys in the vicinity of the sports complex that have been nearly abandoned, or are functioning at sub-optimal level. “It is not just the Reddy projects that have slowed down, government projects too have not taken off. The waste segregation unit is not operational. The new bus stand is inaugurated but is incomplete. Drinking water reaches your tap once in a fortnight despite the Tungabhadra reservoir being 60km away. Every part of the city is permanently under construction. No, that would be an inaccurate assessment because everything has gone under," says Murthy.

The mining dream

Over a decade ago, a lot was envisioned for the city. D.L. Ramesh Gopal, former president of the Bellary District Chamber of Commerce and Industry, explains that the economy of the entire district was always driven by iron ore mining. When there was a sudden spurt in demand over a decade ago, people made a lot of money. Demand in China went up not just for iron ore but also for iron fines, something that one had to pay to dispose of.

“The local mining industry made so much money in three years that it would have taken them 150 years to earn that in the normal course. Suddenly there were six helicopters and five Gulfstream jets flying into the city. Just imagine the impression it made and the expectation it created," he recalls.

Obviously, when the boom came there was unexpected focus on Bellary city. There was pressure on it to expand and deliver. People had money in their hands, even the most ordinary in the chain made a decent packet. For instance, a driver of a truck laden with ore would make anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 for a single trip to the port. There were nearly 5,000 trucks operational in the district. Occupancy in hotels was at 100%.

People brought land at fancy prices. The market rate for real estate in the city went up to 2,500-3,000 per sq. ft. There were nearly 32 sponge iron industries around the city, which gave employment and ran shifts round the clock. All of this collapsed like a pack of cards in July 2011 when the Supreme Court banned nearly all mining in the district when shocking illegalities and environmental degradation came to light.

Obviously, Reddy’s ambitious plans came a cropper. He wanted land acquired for an airport. New bypass and main roads were planned because the city roads were clogged with trucks. A 100 crore budget was set aside for roads alone. “Whatever his money-making game, he had vision for the city. He could think big. He spoke of Bellary in terms of Singapore. And since he had political clout, he could get things done over a phone call. And with money, he could also silence his critics," says Gopal.

From then to now, there is virtually nothing left. In FY20, business is down by 20-25%. “Last year was not the best year, but this year has seen a steep fall. In the last couple of years, the sponge iron industries had done reasonably well as steel prices went up internationally," says Gopal. But in terms of the city, there has been no recovery whatsoever. “It has become a desert town and resembles 17th century Texas," he exclaims with sadness.

The resistance

When Reddy was trying to bulldoze the city’s expansion, a lot of people may have succumbed to his designs out of fear or favour, but there were some like lawyer-activist Mallikarjuna Reddy, who could not be bought. He inspired a popular movement, and also launched a legal battle against Reddy.

It all started when Reddy planned to set up an airport by acquiring big acres of irrigated land in the Tungabhadra catchment area. The Airports Authority of India said 600 acres was enough, but Reddy wanted 1,700 acres first, but had later settled for 1,213 acres. The villages of Chaganuru and Sirivara, 15km from the city, were the ground zero of resistance.

The activists were not opposed to an airport per se but didn’t want irrigated land to be acquired. They also argued that there were already two airports in the vicinity, one the Jindal Steel airport 25km away from Bellary city, and an airport in the cantonment with about 230 acres. Finally, three years of resistance yielded positive results in the high court.

Once Mallikarjuna Reddy and friends tasted success with their struggle, they put forward an alternate development plan for the city: “The health and environment costs of mining were very high. In a parallel move we tried to get the local government hospital to function better. The hospital serves three surrounding districts, but is woefully ill-equipped. Why was improving the hospital not Reddy’s priority? Wouldn’t it have served more people than the airport?" he asks.

In conclusion

Talking of deplorable health and hygiene issues in the city, local journalists have a delightful anecdote. Apparently, corporation commissioner Tushara Mani M.V. was recently down with dengue fever. When reporters asked her what would happen to common folk if the commissioner herself could be affected by dengue, she reportedly said it was not a Bellary mosquito that bit her but one from neighbouring Davanagere. This may have been said in jest, but indicates how bad the situation is.

Local journalist M. Ahiraj says the city still has great potential, and to be fair to the Reddys they had more ideas than any other politicians before them. He admits though that their means, methods and speed became an issue.

“But still, not all is lost. The Supreme Court monitored reclamation and rehabilitation fund to alleviate areas ravaged by mining has nearly 20,000 crore in it. But, the authorities have not been able to present a plan that would convince the SC on its spending. That should tell us something about the state of affairs,"says Ahiraj. There is also the District Mining Fund and one is not sure how effectively it is being utilized. If it had been, we would have known. Despite all the bad news, Bellary remains hopeful.

Sugata Srinivasaraju is a senior journalist and author.

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