It should have naturally attracted the IT industry, but got fire-eating politicians and unimaginative policies
The HD Deve Gowda-Narayana Murthy spat that made national headlines recently had one interesting takeaway. It was the former Prime Minister’s suggestion that information technology (IT) companies crowding Bangalore and complaining about poor infrastructure should consider shifting to alternative locations such as Belgaum and Mysore. The current Karnataka chief minister followed by saying that Belgaum would soon get an IT Park.
Just as this seemed to promise Belgaum’s development as an IT destination that could give Pune and Bangalore a run for their money, everything changed. A few weeks later, the headlines about Belgaum are the same as they were during my school and college years there: frequent agitation and disruptions over the issue of merging the small border city with Maharashtra. In the 1980s and 90s, the riots slowly turned into a bi-annual ritual —on Karnataka Day (November) and Maharashtra Day (May). At other times, Kannadigas and Maharashtrians co-existed peacefully, unless instigated by local politicians short of causes.
I may be forgiven for forgetting a riot or two, but over the past decade, it almost seemed language chauvinists were taking a back seat and people were worrying about development. For heaven’s sake, even Bihar has voted for economic development by voting Lalu Prasad out after 15 years. But then, certain political parties would lose their raison d’etre. Belgaum’s headline-making events tend to distort its image; far from being an insular city focussed on language and location, it is a very cosmopolitan small town. Part of the reason is its proximity to Goa, having the Maratha Light Infantry regimental headquarters, an airport, an Indian Air Force base, the educational institutions that brought donation-paying students from around the country and even abroad and, of course, Indian Aluminium’s (Indal) smelter and alumina plant.
The border agitation has handicapped Belgaum’s industrial development (Karnataka preferred to focus on Hubli, instead), but in the past few decades, it has emerged as a centre for education. The India Study Centre lists over 100 colleges in Belgaum, covering everything from medicine, pharmacy, management, engineering, law, agriculture, ayurveda and pharmacy to a dozen polytechnic institutes, multiple homeopathy, nursing and teachers’ training colleges and the Vishvesvaraya Technological University.
• Belgaum happens to be very cosmopolitan, with several economic pluses
• Yet, instead of naturally attracting IT, it has been on a decadal decline
• The last thing it needs now is another revival of the border dispute
In addition to these pre-university and professional colleges divided between Marathi and Kannada-dominated institutions, it has as many as five convent schools, that are a favoured option for many parents in the linguistically divided population. Each of these have added value to the city. Now add to all this a salubrious climate and proximity to Mumbai, Pune, Goa and Bangalore and it makes for an ideal second-tier IT destination.
But, instead of naturally attracting the IT industry, Belgaum has been on a decline of sorts over the past decade. Twenty-five years ago, Belgaum was regularly connected by air, but dropped off the Indian Airlines map in the 1990s. It is again attracting private airlines, leading to a Rs 15-crore airport modernisation plan. Similarly, road connectivity was disrupted until the recently completed Golden Quadrilateral project neared completion and train travel was affected for a while during the conversion to a broad-gauge track. Infrastructure problems extend to scarcity of water and electricity. In fact, the power problems were so acute that Indal was forced to downsize its operation and even consider shutting the Belgaum plant around the turn of the century.
Unfortunately, the language agitation threatens to cloud all other issues once again. After all, no BPO company will want to take chances of work being disrupted by riots and agitation. And half a century later, the Karnataka government hasn't seen fit to woo Belgaum’s Maharashtrians through economic development.
Belgaum needs the space and opportunity to develop its potential, not another debilitating political agitation. At a time when Thomas Friedman tells us that the world is flat, it is pity Belgaum is not allowed to get past the border dispute. The last thing it needs is to politicise the dispute. The Congress party must ensure the Maharashtra chief minister is not allowed to fan the flames of discord. This will only encourage the rudderless Shiv Sena to use the issue for its political survival, setting back the process of Belgaum gaining its obvious place on the economic map.