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Karnataka: Splitting the difference? The politics of dividing districts, upside & hitches

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The Times Of India
21st October, 2019 10:57 IST

BENGALURU: When Yadgir was carved out of Kalaburagi (then Gulbarga ) in 2009, people of the new district expected infrastructure development and economic growth.

The 30th district of Karnataka, comprising Shahapur, Shorapur and Yadgir taluks, was created after a 40-year struggle. The desperation for separate districthood had been palpable and had good reason — the 2002 Nanjundappa Committee report’s comprehensive composite development index ranked Shahapur at a lowly 171 among the state’s 175 taluks; Yadgir (162) and Shorapur (159) fared only a little better.

But 10 years down the line, the most backward district in Kalyana Karnataka has witnessed little or no progress and people in the district are close to losing all hope.

“The government constructed a few new government buildings, but there has been nothing in terms of growth or development,” said former minister Raju Gouda of the BJP.

This has been the case with not just Yadgir, but 11 other districts created since 1997.

However, that fact hasn’t deterred politicos and people from clamouring for the carving out of more new districts. Now there’s a growing demand for the creation of six new districts — Vijayanagara (from Ballari), Devaraj Urs (Mysuru), Jamkhandi (Bagalkot), Madhugiri (Tumakuru), and Chikkodi/Gokak (Belagavi).

Most of these demands originated from the disqualified MLAs, who are now hoping for a favourable Supreme Court decision to contest the December bypolls.

But do smaller districts necessarily result in better administration or is the clamour, in the main, all about politics? Though the reason constantly cited for these demands is that it will enhance administrative efficiency, officials who have been involved in such matters say, calls for the division or merger of districts usually boil down to politics.

This was obvious in the recent case when chief minister BS Yediyurappa agreed to disqualified MLA Anand B Singh’s demand to bifurcate Ballari district and carve out a new Vijayanagar district, the constituency Singh represents.

Yediyurappa’s immediate acquiescence to Singh’s representation, when similar demands for the bifurcation or trifurcation of the much larger Belagavi and Tumakuru districts have for decades remained unaddressed. Belagavi, with 18 assembly constituencies, is seeking trifurcation and separate Belagavi, Gokak and Chikkodi districts. The issue has been left untouched due to local political pressures and Maharashtra’s opposition to the proposal due to the border dispute between the states.

Singh’s contention for the establishment of a new district is that it will help promote tourism, especially for the monuments at Hampi, a Unesco World Heritage Site . In reality, sources say, Singh wants to undercut the influence of the Reddy brothers and their former aide B Sriramulu in the mineral-rich district.

The division of Tumakuru district, with 10 taluks, has also been a longstanding demand. Some people in the district have to travel up to 150km to get to the district headquarters. Facing stiff opposition, however, Yediyurappa has kept the issue in abeyance.

In another demand, by disqualified MLA AH Vishwanath of the JD(S), to bifurcate Mysuru and create a Devaraj Urs district, experts see a bid to undermine the influence of the Congress and JD(S) in the district and create a new political space for himself.

In past instances, then CM HD Kumaraswamy, for political and electoral reasons, created Ramanagara and Chikkaballapura districts in 2007, the experts say. The move helped the Gowda family gain political control over the district.

The only time that districts were divided rationally was in 1997, when JH Patel as CM presided over the creation of Bagalkot, Davanagere, Chamarajanagar, Gadag, Haveri, Koppal and Udupi — proposals for which had been pending from the ’80s. Bagalkot district was split from Bijapur (now Vijayapura), Chamarajanagar district was carved out of Mysuru, Gadag and Haveri districts from Dharwad, Koppal district from Raichur, Udupi from Dakshina Kannada, and Davanagere from parts of Chitradurga, Shivamogga and Ballari.

Getting size wise

Though the average size of districts has shrunk since 1991, revenue officials say their average population has grown exponentially. “At least 15 districts are still too big in terms of population, area and geographic features,” former bureaucrat D Ramesh said.

Current and former IAS officers are divided on whether smaller districts really make for better administration. The common refrain of bureaucrats on the concept of dividing large districts into smaller ones is that it brings administration closer to people, if the government pumps enough funds and manpower into their development.

“The smaller the district, the better the administration,” a senior IAS officer said. “It makes it easier for officers to visit once-remote villages. They can focus more on development and in better implementation of schemes. Grievances can be redressed faster.”

But other officers say the size of a district is not a major factor in governance.

“Since the panchayats and corporations below the district administration are not effective enough, people take most of their grievances to the deputy commissioner,” another senior IAS officer said. “The district administration is normally accountable only to their seniors, not directly to people.”

There are other benefits to adding new districts than ease of governance, some politicians say. “Growth centres are created in new district headquarters and land rates go up,” former minister Gouda said. “Another benefit is new districts get district-specific central projects. The government sets up medical colleges, district hospitals, agricultural extension centres and residential schools.”

The creation of new districts, however, comes at a steep price. According to an official estimate, the creation a new district involves an initial cost of around Rs15 crore, and a final spend of between Rs 2,000 crore and Rs 5,000 crore.

It’s a mammoth exercise. The government has to create more than 2,500 new posts, , a majority in the revenue and police departments, to administer the district. Additional administrative expenditure is also involved creation of district offices for deputy commissioners and superintendents of police and other workplaces.

“Creation of new districts is great, but the government should reconsider the amount of manpower the new district requires to bring it on par with a well-governed district,” said a revenue officer. “A reduction in geographical area must be supported with the right number of officers for well-rounded development.”

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