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The story of a small town in Karnataka and the price it is paying for ill-conceived development

Jalappa’s family has lived in Karnataka’s Tumkur for over four generations now. About 100 meters off the National Highway 4, the family of 16 lives in a three-bedroom house and collectively owns about 27 acres of farmland. “We are like any other family. We live, fight, make-up and celebrate together,” says Jalappa, the 67-year-old patriarch.

For about a year now, Jalappa says he has been conscious of the fact that his idyllic life might change irreversibly, any day.

 When Tumkur was declared a smart city in 2017, the family knew that the physical and demographic changes would be gigantic. “When my father was a farmer in Tumkur, there were houses in between massive paddy fields, today you will see small fields in between massive houses,” says Jalappa.

 As a satellite town, less than 70 km from Bangalore, Tumkur was all set for expansion ever since the technology industry began to flourish in Bangalore in the early 2000s.

First, the highways expanded, shrinking agricultural fields beside them. Single story homes gradually grew in length and small factories bloated to occupy thousands of acres of land. “If I had not seen Tumkur undergo these changes myself, I would not have believed it,” says Jalappa. “If my father came back today, he would certainly not recognise the place,” he laughs.

 Tumkur is a classic example of India’s urbanisation story. Along with the industries, came their obvious chronic side effects. Tumkur’s air quality changed overnight, groundwater levels depleted and people’s daily routines began to be governed by the punctual factory clocks instead of the sun.

 In fact, there has been an overdose of industry-induced urbanisation in Tumkur in the past decade.

In 2013, the town was declared a National Investment and Manufacturing Zone (NIMZ) and the Tumkur Machine Tool Park was set up. Tumkur was also included in the Smart City plan and in February 2017, Tumakuru Smart City Limited was incorporated as a non-government company.

 “There will be a time when Tumkur will have more industries than healthy people,” says Leo Saldanha, founder of the non-profit Environment Support Group.

 In addition, Tumkur was also named one of the three industrial nodes along the proposed Chennai-Bangalore Industrial Corridor (CBIC). The others were Ponneri in Tamil Nadu and Krishnapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.

 Inclusion into the CBIC will further push the town towards industrialisation, as greater funds for industrial development gush in.

 The question is, after more than a decade of such brisk industrialisation, does Tumkur still have the capacity to move further down the same path? Observers count three reasons to illustrate its inability—lack of groundwater, availability of land and ironically, low interest among entrepreneurs.

 Industrial Corridors

The Master Plan for the Chennai Bangalore Industrial Corridor was made in October 2015. According to the plan, the project will cover (benefit) around 50 million Indians residing between the two metropolises. With a length of over 560 km, the CBIC will cover parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. 

 In its first phase, CBIC will include “25 priority projects, across various sectors, aimed at removing infrastructural bottlenecks.” These include high-speed rail and road transportation, ports, special economic regions and industrial hubs.

 While industrial corridors were conceived in 2009 by the previous Congress-led government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has propelled it with greater vigour.

 An estimated sum of $174 billion will be required over the next 20 years to meet the goals of CBIC.

 The Karnataka government signed an agreement with the National Industrial Corridor Development and Implementation Trust (NICDIT), under which it will fulfill its share of the commitment for the CBIC. The Central Government formed the NICDIT in December 2016 under the administrative control of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion.

 With emphasis on programmes like Make In India, Skill Development and Smart Cities, the Modi government has left no doubts about its intention to boost the manufacturing sector’s share in the country’s GDP. The development of 18 proposed industrial corridors fits into this larger vision.

However, should a vast and poor country like India expand industries and manufacturing hubs in this manner? More importantly, is the current model of development even desirable?

Tumkur is a good example to understand the pitfalls in the path India has chosen to economic growth.

 Lack of water

Nonavinakere Seethamma has lived in Tumkur for more than three decades. Her house is close to Church Circle, a prominent part of Tumkur. “Until three years ago, our taps never ran dry,” she says. “But now, we have to set aside time everyday to fill up large drums of water for daily use,” she adds.

Seethamma’s experience speaks for most people in Tumkur.

The spurt in water-intensive industries such as electronics, automobile manufacturing, textiles and food processing, are adversely affecting the already fragile water system in this rather dry part of Karnataka.

Tumkur lies in the eastern region of Karnataka, away from major rivers and the ocean. According to the Ministry of Water Resources’ Ground Water Information Booklet on Tumkur, “About 90% of the drinking requirements and 86% of irrigations requirements are met from ground water. This has resulted in over-exploitation in about 54% area in the district.”

 Greater the industrialisation, lower goes the ground water, maybe even below the critical level, says Vishwanath Srikantaiah, a water activist in Bangalore.

 In fact, lack of water is a critical problem throughout the CBIC region. In February 2018, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) put Bengaluru on a list of 11 major cities likely to run out of drinking water very soon. Unfortunately for Bangalore, it was the only Indian city in that list.

Over the course of years, the solution to Bangalore’s depleting water sources was found by diverting water from the Cauvery river. In 2013, Karnataka government channeled an additional 10 thousand million cubic feet of water from the Cauvery to meet Bangalore’s drinking water requirements.

 What is of concern here is that Cauvery is not just the main source of water for the city, but is also the only source of water to meet the irrigation needs for most of Southern Karnataka. Many observers feel being close to Bengaluru is both a boon and a bane for Tumkur. Water for Bangalore will always be prioritised over Tumkur, says Srikantaiah.

Without water, industries are bound to fail. “No amount of subsidies or assistance can help industries if they do not have easy access to water and land,” says a senior bureaucrat in Karnataka, requesting anonymity. “Since we are unable to provide them with both, industries are not taking off as effectively as they should,” he admitted. 

Chennai’s water shortage throughout the year is not new. In 2019, before the advent of summers, Chennai’s per capita water supply was half of last year’s. When the summers hit, trains carried water into the city.

 The pressure on water sources in the region has skyrocketed in the last decade since the population density in the CBIC region increased exponentially.

 Since South India has better a Human Development Index coupled with a better economy, population growth here has remained stagnant. However, migration from northern parts of the country has increased the population density in the South.

 Between 2001 and 2011 (the last census), the population of the country increased by 18% while the population growth in the CBIC area was 27%. The most populated district in the region is Bengaluru that has 9.62 million (20.24% of the CBIC region).

 “If we choose to develop by industrialising more, there will be greater conflicts about drinking water for people and water required for industries,” said Srikantaiah.

 The domestic water demand of CBIC is projected to increase with future population growth. While the demand in 2018 was estimated at 119% of that in 2013, the demand in 2023 is estimated to be 133% of that in 2013 and the demand in 2033 is estimated as 160% of that in 2013, according to the CBIC Master Plan.

 “If there is no way the government can provide water, why is it insisting on setting up industries?” asks Madhuresh of the National Alliance for People’s Movement, who has worked on urbanization-related issues in the country. “When the government promises an ‘industrial corridor’, land rates in those regions increase. The local politicians, contractors and businessmen gain from this,” he adds. He thinks no government is serious about developing industries per se.

Alternate route for development

 The road leading out of Bangalore towards Tumkur, unimaginatively called Tumkur Road is a massive four-lane road. All along, the road is punctuated by over-crowded residential colonies. In the not-so-distant past, most of them were sprawling farmlands.

 Since most Indian urban centres have not been planned well, a large portion of rural population is caught in a limbo. Bangalore’s rapid expansion in the past three decades, for instance, was largely unplanned. “This has given rise to many semi-urban regions in the country,” said Madhuresh.

While most people want to experience the comforts of an urban life, they are not willing to give up their lands, space or rural livelihoods. “We want running water in our taps, and electricity all day long, but we do not want to live in small shanties and work in factories,” said Lakhmamma from Magadi, on the outskirts of Bangalore.

 The urbanisation ratio is the percentage of urban population to total population. While the urbanisation ratio of India is 31.15%, in the CBIC region is 51.17%. This means greater strain on ground water. 

 Senior officials in Karnataka agree that there is a need to find solutions other than industrialisation to the problem of sluggish economic growth. However, no one seems to be able to put a finger on what those solutions are.

 It is pretty simple, according to Jalappa. “Do not touch agricultural lands,” he says. “If there is agriculture, there is food security. What will you eat otherwise?” he asks. He also believes that as long as there is land, there will be a farming community that will struggle to produce. 

 But, successive governments find it easier to acquire agricultural lands for industry. For instance, the Kerala government is acquiring 470 acres of mostly agricultural land in Palakkad district for linking Kochi with the Chennai-Bangalore Industrial Corridor project. But Kochi was not featured in the originally planned CBIC at all.

 Since the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor is the most advanced amongst all the proposed Industrial Corridors, its example can be considered to understand the downside of such acquisitions. Lucrative agricultural lands in Raigad district of Maharashtra are being acquired under the pretext of creating jobs by boosting manufacturing.

 “The answer to a non-performing agricultural sector is not over-emphasis on industry, but to support agriculture itself,” says Sagar Rabbari, head of a farmers’ association in Gujarat.

 The plan for CBIC claims that it will create at least 22 million additional jobs in the next 20 years. “All these jobs will be industry-generated jobs, if at all they are created,” said Jalappa. “We are not trained to do them. So, the nation will end up spending more on developing our skills to suit these industries,” he adds.

 The country seems to have forgotten the skill required to produce food grains that farmers like Jalappa already have, says Rabbari. “A rather important skill, don’t you think?” he adds.

 The CBIC plan accommodates food-processing units in the region. The government is interested in streamlining food production to ensure greater productivity, said the senior bureaucrat. The Master Plan for CBIC reads, “While food-processing may not be a substantial driver in terms of GDP growth (due to relatively lower potential of high value add even at higher levels of value chain), it may be a significant driver for employment.”

With large tracts of agricultural lands being taken away for the Corridor project, farmers in Tumkur are of the view that no amount of “streamlining of farm produce” will help the cause.

Jalappa says he doesn’t sleep very well these days. The nagging fear of losing his land is always at the back of his mind. “I guess this is also a side effect of industries,” he says, “people lose their peace of mind.”

Published in: Newslaundry
Published on: September 10 2019