Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Is there a Government in Karnataka?

Ineptness at its worst
The Statesman

From l’affaire Uma Bharati to the fracas over IT, the Kannada film industry and the Common Entrance Test, the Dharam Singh government has come a cropper. TYAGRAJ SHARMA reports

The word inept, according to Roget’s Thesaurus, means clumsy, artless, awkward, bungling, inadept, inefficient, unskillful, ham-handed and incapable. And in Karnataka, it has also come to mean the 100-day-old government of Dharam Singh. Literally.

Although he has repeatedly faulted the media and cited the “accompanying difficulties” of heading a coalition to hide his government’s ineffectiveness, Singh knows he has bungled. Time and again, the Congress-led coalition has proved its ineptness, be it the Common Entrance Test controversy, the Uma Bharati episode, the crisis in the Kannada film industry or the anguish of the IT industry over the neglect of Bangalore’s infrastructure.

On each of these issues, the Singh government allowed itself to drift, its actions unconvincing and half-hearted. This, despite the fact that Singh is not new to politics or power; he has been in the business for over three decades, holding important portfolios.

Take the case of the latest controversy, one relating to the Kannada film industry. A section of producers and distributors has decided that Kannada films need to be screened in the state’s theatres, prominently and regularly, if they are to recover their money. They also want the recent government decision of reducing entertainment tax on non-Kannada films from 70 to 40 per cent revoked. This, when the Kannada film industry is exempt from any such tax. The influential section has also enforced a ban which prevents theatre owners and exhibitors from screening new non-Kannada films not until seven weeks after release elsewhere.

The industry’s decision has provoked its counterparts in other states to retaliate accordingly; the latter have launched a non-cooperation movement against the Kannada film industry. Artistes from the Kannada film industry would not be accepted elsewhere, and those from other parts of the country would not be allowed in Kannada cinema.
What is more shocking, however, is that a government-appointed committee has backed the decision of the film producers and distributors. Predictably, since the ban came into force over a month ago, the government has not done anything to retrieve the situation.

Even more appalling was a remark by the chief minister. When asked what he intended to do, his reply was: “I will be going to meet them for discussion” and not “I will be calling them for discussions,” as would have been the befitting response. This has prompted people to wonder whether the UPA government would have kept quiet if such a situation had developed in a non Congress-led government. “How can any government allow a few to dictate as to what the people should see in cinema halls? It is a violation of Fundamental Rights,” is the refrain.

As if this wasn’t enough, the government’s handling of the Uma Bharati episode and the chief minister’s contradictory stand on the same, did not go down well even within the Congress leadership in Delhi. Ridiculed for his conflicting stand regarding the 10-year-old Hubli case against Bharati, the chief minister came out a confused man. His frustration was obvious when he told newsmen: “Ek taraf BJP mere pichhe padi hai, doosri taraf aap log (The BJP has made my life miserable, and now you people are also troubling me).”

Equally disappointing has been the manner in which the government sought to tackle the controversial and sensitive issue of students’ admission to professional colleges. First, it failed to force private colleges to accept the state demand for providing 75 per cent of their seats under government quota (where comparatively low fee is charged). Frustrated, it decided to deny outstation students the right to appear for Common Entrance Test.

CET is held to select meritorious students for seats in private professional colleges on fees regulated by the government. Under what authority this facility was sought to be denied to non-Karnataka students, after encouraging them to spend huge sums on buying the necessary forms, is something the government could not explain. It did make a feeble attempt to seek refuge behind an earlier Supreme Court order. Later, following court intervention and a patch up between the government and the managements of private colleges, the outstation students did get some reprieve, though not without suffering a harrowing time.

The Karnataka government’s inept handling of these issues clearly indicates its paucity of ideas and will to tackle pressing problems. The fact became obvious immediately after the coalition came to power – within a few days, it had made it clear Bangalore would not be a priority area and that the government’s emphasis would be elsewhere. The resultant outcry by the Bangalore-based IT industry, which was losing valuable man hours because of deteriorating infrastructure and poor road condition, was enough to jolt the government; it woke up to promise corrective action.

Unfortunately, such assurances haven’t yet been translated into action, going by the state of Bannerghatta Road, for example. One of the main arteries of the city, it houses offices of leading IT, banking and BPO companies including Honeywell, Progeon, Oracle, IBM, Infosys, HSBC and Accenture. Yet, the road is dotted by several hundred potholes in a small stretch of just two kilometres. And the monsoons have only made things worse.

The condition of roads leading to Electronics City, where most of the company headquarters are located, is equally abysmal with traffic snarls being the order of the day. This being the situation in the capital, one can well imagine the plight in other parts of the state. No wonder then, when states like Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal came to woo the IT sector, the response was more than encouraging. Only a few days ago, Amar Singh, chairman of UP Development Council and a shrewd politician to boot, told newsmen in Bangalore that he was confident of getting Infosys to make a major investment in Noida.

Nandan Nilekeni, CEO, Infosys, is already in the process of preparing the IT policy of the UP government, in addition to doing a pilot project in that state on e-learning. Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, is unabashedly courting companies like Infosys and Wipro to add to its existing facilities. West Bengal has also experienced some success with Wipro.

In sum, the Karnataka government has left both the common man and the industry doubtful about its ability to administer. And with each passing day, the attrition in belief is only increasing pace. Which also explains the growing speculation that Congress chief Sonia Gandhi is planning a change in the Karnataka government leadership.

(The author is the Bangalore-based Special Representative of The Statesman.)


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