Karnataka elections 2023: What the political debate ignores



Congress regimes in 1999 and 2013, and BJP’s intermittent rule since 2008, seem to have shared a common faith in a market and technology-led, predominantly urban growth model. Work and wage-related issues have remained peripheral

karnataka elections, bjp, congress, bommai, khargeKarnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai and Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge (Express Photo by Jithendra M)

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The current competitive electoral discourse of parties in Karnataka reveals a certain lack of engagement with what are arguably critical issues in the state’s political economy. Undoubtedly, Karnataka is a fast-growing state, a leader in IT, ITeS and exports, in cutting-edge sectors such as biotechnology, and is an epicentre of tech-driven start-ups.

Despite this impressive post-1990s growth profile, poverty in Karnataka (at 13.2 per cent in 2021), continues to be highest among the southern states (4.89 per cent in Tamil Nadu, 0.71 per cent in Kerala and 12.3 per cent in Andhra Pradesh). Similarly, estimates from 2021 show that Karnataka does not feature in the high HDI list of eight states and in fact, the state’s overall HDI ranking amongst all states is 17th.

To take a single example, Karnataka’s infant mortality rate (IMR) in 2022 was 20 per 1,000 live births, compared to six in Kerala, and 13 in Tamil Nadu. The multidimensional poverty index, which was released by the Niti Aayog in 2021 highlighted that in Karnataka 34 per cent remained nutrition deprived (to Kerala’s 15 per cent, Tamil Nadu’s 24 per cent, and Andhra Pradesh’s 26 per cent).

The continuing north-south divide in the state and the specific pattern of urban development that is taking place provide keys to the contradictions of high growth and high poverty/low HDI. Despite long-standing public concern, poverty continues to exceed 35 per cent in the historically poor northern districts of Chitradurga, Bellary, Koppal, Raichur, Gulbarga, Bagalkot and Bidar. Predominantly rural and lacking irrigation and infrastructural facilities, the northern districts have remained outside of the radar of governments.

Karnataka’s rate of urbanisation, at 38 per cent, has been higher than the national average of 31 per cent ( 2011 census). However, more than 65 per cent of the urban population is concentrated in the three major transport corridors: Bengaluru-Belgaum, Mysuru-Kolar and Mangaluru-Karwar. The urban population of Bengaluru district accounted for 37 per cent of the state’s urban population in the last census (2011). In terms of district-wise urbanisation, Bengaluru district at 88 per cent is way ahead even of relatively urbanised districts, Dharwad at 55 per cent, Dakshina Kannada and Mysuru at 38 per cent and 36 per cent respectively. The window of urban opportunities has thus been confined primarily to Bengaluru.

Expectedly, despite the state’s IT-led urban glitter, agriculture remains the largest employer. In 2019-20, agriculture’s share in GSVA was 12 per cent, but employment was as high as 46 per cent; the share of industry in GSVA and employment was 21 per cent and 19 per cent, while in services it was 66 per cent and 33 per cent respectively. Agriculture provides subsistence livelihoods, particularly in the context of repeated agrarian crises in drought-prone northern Karnataka. This explains the influx of migrants into Bengaluru city.

The total proportion of intra-state migrants in Bengaluru increased from 60.68 per cent in 2001 to 65.64 per cent in 2011; those moving specifically for employment, mainly agricultural labourers or small farmers, remained around 25 per cent over this 10-year period. The insecurities of urban work and income, mainly in construction and low-level services, compel many to retain a dual rural-urban work and home life. Covid-19 only intensified these vulnerabilities and highlighted the inherent weaknesses of this model of urbanisation that is in place.

On the other hand, industrial jobs have increasingly disappeared, caused by the shift to capital-intensive industrialisation brought on by globalisation, international competition in technology and pricing. A declining public sector and small-scale industries sector, and closed textile mills have ceased to be potential destinations for unskilled or semi-skilled job seekers. While the diminishing importance of industry relative to services is an all-India trend, a few of the economically advanced states have managed to retain a higher share of industry in GSVA (Maharashtra at 28.4 and Tamil Nadu at 33 per cent), while at the same time developing their service sectors. Although successive governments in Karnataka have voiced concerns about industry’s low share in GSVA (21 per cent), substantive policies, with a view to raising industrial employment, have not been taken in this regard.

A growing — but small — professional and upwardly mobile middle and upper class employed by IT and related sectors represents Karnataka’s national and global profile. As a spill-over effect, the creation of service-based employment for urban working classes has been much hyped. However, much of the expansion of employment has occurred in the low-value-added bottom rungs of the services sector. Thus we see an emerging class of service providers in transportation, deliveries, security, hospitality, retail and housekeeping. Although service providers may receive a monthly salaried wage, and in some cases, limited social security, the reality of these jobs is that even a minimum wage may not be paid, there is no security of tenure, and hours of work may be erratic and unregulated.

Karnataka’s unemployment rate of 2.7 per cent is lower than the national average of 4.2 per cent. However, the condition of low-skilled workers, even those working in the so-called organised corporate sector, or as contract workers in government service, demonstrates that it is possible to be employed but poor. Whether it is women workers in the ready-made apparels export industry, or as Anganwadi teachers and helpers, or contract pourakarmikas, their long and arduous battles for an increase in salaries and regularisation of services — led by left-leaning trade unions and civil society organisations — have made possible only limited gains.

The Congress regimes elected in 1999 and 2013, the BJP’s intermittent rule since 2008, seem to share a common faith in a market and technology-led, predominantly urban growth model, unchallenged by the Janata Dal’s brief two-year stints in power (2006, 2018). Work and wage-related issues and regional disparities have remained peripheral in these regimes. The pre-election mandates and politics of parties now possibly need to be re-examined in the context of these critical blind spots of political representation.

The writer is visiting professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

First published on: 03-05-2023 at 06:00 IST

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