Hindalga in the border district of Belagavi is one of the most picturesque villages in Karnataka. The hamlet, which is within 20 km of the Western Ghats range, is home to around a thousand people as well as an early 20th-century heritage prison where some of the country’s most notorious criminals, including death row convicts, are incarcerated.
After a century, the postcard village recently celebrated the local temple fair for which it got a makeover. Its patchy roads were re-laid amidst a slew of development works. But these very projects that the villagers had enthusiastically welcomed appear to have cost one of its residents his life. An alleged suicide of a resident of this little village has blown the lid off the underlying rot in the larger system.
A short stroll from the prison leads to ‘ Kanasu’ (dream), a newly built house in Samarth Nagar. This is where 40-year-old Santosh Patil, a civil contractor and Hindu Yuva Vahini leader, planned to live. Before moving into the house that embodied his dreams for a prosperous future, he had planned to host a house-warming ceremony on May 3, which marked the Basava Jayanti this year. Unfortunately, that future was cut short. Patil was found dead in a hotel in Udupi on April 12.
A desperate letter to the PM
Six weeks prior to his death, Patil had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi complaining about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Karnataka government’s delay in releasing ₹4 crore towards 108 civil works for the village. It had been executed without work orders, allegedly on oral assurances from then Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR) Minister K.S. Eshwarappa, in the run-up to the temple fair. In the letter, he alleged that Mr. Eshwarappa’s ‘agents’ were demanding bribes to clear the bill. He warned the Prime Minister that he would be left with no option but to end his life if the bills were not cleared.
When Patil went public with the letter, Mr. Eshwarappa claimed the contractor had not carried out any works in Hindalga, and filed a defamation case against him. Days before his death, when Patil spoke to The Hindu, he recounted how he, along with a delegation of BJP workers from Hindalga Gram Panchayat, met Mr. Eshwarappa and asked him to re-lay roads in the village prior to the Lakshmi Temple fair. “The Minister immediately asked me to start the work and assured me that he would take care of regularising it by issuing work orders and clearing the bills when it was completed,” Patil had said at the time.
When asked if he was aware of the risk of verbally agreeing to such a large undertaking without due process, the contractor claimed that it was how government works were executed. “After all, I was a member of the ruling party. What could go wrong?” he said.
Nagesh Munnolkar, president of the Hindalga Gram Panchayat, who led the delegation, concurred with Patil’s version of what transpired in the meeting. Roads in the village had been re-laid, though he had subcontracted the works. Concerns had been raised about the quality of the roads. Patil told The Hindu that he had paid a “commission” of around ₹15 lakh to various middlemen. He alleged that despite this, Mr. Eshwarappa and his agents were demanding more commission without clearing his bills. While his wife, Jayashree Patil, said she was unaware of all the details, she confirmed that her husband often spoke about the Minister and his agents harassing him for kickbacks. She admitted that he sold her jewellery to take out loans from acquaintances.
Through it all, Mr. Eshwarappa and the RDPR Department he headed at the time denied that they had anything to do with this. Both claimed that no work orders were issued. However, last week Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai clarified that henceforth no project will be executed without work orders. “Works were being taken up on oral instructions, particularly in rural local bodies,” he said, without specifically citing this case.
Contractors say that at any given time, nearly ₹400 crore—500 crore worth of works are ongoing in the State without work orders and on oral instructions of Ministers or MLAs. Santosh Patil’s multiple meetings and appeals to central BJP leaders in Delhi failed to resolve the impasse. Apparently hounded by creditors, he took his life on April 12. But he left a WhatsApp message to his friends holding Mr. Eshwarappa “directly responsible” for his death. He called for the Minister to be appropriately punished.
Though Mr. Eshwarappa – a Hindutva hardliner and controversial Minister – tried to brazen it out, he was forced to resign on April 15, reportedly after a nudge from the BJP’s central leadership.
Until Patil’s death, the ruling BJP had been riding a two-month high on the continuous religious polarisation in the State that began with the hijab controversy and soon spread, with their strategic support or silence, to the economic boycott of Muslims and ban of loudspeakers in mosques and other religious institutions. Patil’s suicide came as a jolt, redirecting the public’s gaze back to allegations of corruption, shoddy roadwork and other problems that had been drowned out by back-to-back incidents of religious polarisation.
It resurrected an unprecedented submission made by the Karnataka State Contractors’ Association in July 2021, to Prime Minister Modi that in Karnataka “40% kickbacks” were being sought for contracts awarded by the State Government. The petition, made public in November later that year, had failed to gain traction in the public discourse.
In the aftermath of Patil’s death, the association announced members would stop work for a month in May if their concerns – eradication of corruption in tenders among others – are not resolved by then. They also warned that they will release “proof of corruption” against at least five to six Ministers and 20-25 MLAs from the ruling party.
D. Kempanna, president, Karnataka State Contractors’ Association, termed the incumbent BJP government as historically the “most corrupt” in the State. Taking commissions on contracts is an old practice, but it was in the range of 5-10%. That changed when the BJP came to power in 2019, with commissions ballooning to nearly 40%, he alleged. “Since 2019, corruption under this regime is both quantitatively and qualitatively on a different scale. The impunity of Ministers, MLAs and bureaucrats under this regime is outrageous,” he said.
In an unprecedented turn of events, contractors are forced to pay a commission of 5% before the contract is even awarded to them, and 25-30% before starting the work. Another tranche is paid again to clear the bills, taking the kickbacks to around 40%, the association’s July 6, 2021 letter to Prime Minister Modi alleged.
“Never were we expected to pay a commission before our bills were cleared. Now we are expected to pay before the tender is awarded, before starting work and bills are cleared,” R. Ambikapathy, vice-president of the association said.
To add to their woes, the State government has accumulated “never-before” levels of pending bills, estimates of which vary from ₹25,000 crore to even ₹75,000 crore. “Bills for all works undertaken since 2020 are pending, some even older. This has steeped most contractors in a debt trap. At least 10 have ended lives, apart from Santosh Patil since 2019,” Mr. Ambikapathy claimed.
“With nearly 40% kickback, 12-18% Goods and Service Tax (GST) and 10% contractor profit, what remains to carry out civil works is only 30-40%, which is further affected by the rising prices of fuel, building materials and labour. What is the quality of work we can do? What assets are we building for the State?” Mr. Kempanna asked. “With the pandemic’s stress on the State’s economy, successive Budgets’ capital outlay has been less than impressive and in that only about 30% may be the real outlay to create assets. This is essentially making the State regress in development indices,” he told The Hindu.
Weeks after the letter to the Prime Minister, B.S. Yediyurappa, who faced allegations of corruption against his family members, resigned. He was replaced by Basavaraj Bommai. “Though we never got a reply from the Prime Minister’s Office, we really thought our letter had a role in the change of guard and hoped things would get better. But we have been disappointed that the systemic corruption seems to have only become worse under the new regime,” Mr. Kempanna said. The Prime Minister says “ na khaunga, na khane doonga (will not take bribes, nor allow anyone to do so)”, but we are definitely not seeing it in action in Karnataka,” Mr. Kempanna said.
Change of guard, but little else
The BJP fell short of a majority in the 2018 Assembly Elections, leading to a Janata Dal(Secular)—Congress coalition coming to power. But that did not last long when 17 MLAs from the two parties rebelled and defected to the BJP.
The process of defections also saw several allegations of inducements and corruption against Mr. Yediyurappa, who was also allegedly caught on tape trying to woo an MLA. His earlier tenure in 2008-2011 was also plagued by allegations of corruption in illegal mining. Mr. Yediyurappa resigned and was later arrested. However, he was acquitted in the case and has got a stay order on most other cases against him.
His second stint as Chief Minister was dominated by intra-party factionalism like his previous tenure. The faction opposed to him, in its attempt to unseat him, kept the political temperature high from day one. In February 2020, just eight months after he took over, two unsigned open letters by “hurt and loyal party MLAs” called Mr. Yediyurappa’s son B.Y. Vijayendra “super CM”. One of the letters even listed “agents working for Vijayendra brokering deals on his behalf”, with their photographs and contact numbers. Mr. Vijayendra denied the allegations. However, he couldn’t shake off the allegations. One of the defectors A. H. Vishwanath also made repeated allegations of corruption against him.
Ironically, Mr. Eshwarappa, in April last year, had complained to the Governor of Karnataka against Mr. Yediyurappa for interfering in his ministry. He even hinted at graft charges. A few months later, in October 2021, months after Mr. Yediyurappa handed over charge to Mr. Bommai and the Karnataka State Contractors’ Association letter to the PMO, the Income Tax Department raided a set of contractors considered close to the ruling party.
Mutts dragged into controversy
Patil’s death seems to have opened the floodgates. Suppliers of cattle fodder to goshalas have now written to the Prime Minister alleging non-clearance of bills due to their failure to pay a “40% kickback”. Lingayat seer Dingaleshwar Swamiji has alleged even the mutts have to pay a “30% commission” to get budgetary grants for their institutions. However, several other seers whose institutions have also got grants from the BJP government have countered the allegation. Many BJP leaders have also come down heavily on Dingaleshwar Swamiji, who dared the government to prove its honesty by releasing grants to his mutt without “commission.” The government, meanwhile, has also been hit by a police sub-inspector recruitment scam involving a BJP worker.
The State government has brushed aside these allegations in the hope that it will ride out this storm unscathed. It also opposed a debate on the issue in the Assembly at the recently concluded Budget session terming the allegations “baseless” with “no evidence whatsoever”. The BJP has repeatedly attacked the Opposition Congress as having “no moral right” to raise the issue of corruption as it alleges that the previous Congress regime was also rocked by scams. It also attacked State Congress president D.K. Shivakumar, who was jailed by the Enforcement Directorate in 2019. He faces a host of cases including money laundering, suppression of income, benami properties among others.
Airing ‘dirty secrets’
Former Lokayukta Justice N. Santosh Hegde, whose report on illegal mining led to the arrest of Mr. Yediyurappa earlier, hailed the “public airing of a dirty secret” that everyone was aware of. “The ruling and Opposition parties appear to admit there has been a system in place for paying commissions for contracts. Contractors have also essentially admitted to being party to corruption. Paying a bribe is also a crime. They are asking for lesser kickbacks, not its eradication. It is very sad to note that even people in holy positions like religious institutions are admitting to have paid a bribe,” he said.
“In 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had said that for every rupee spent by the government, around 15 paise reached the last man. It seems to be true even today. Everybody talks of development. Now we, the people, wonder whose development – the State’s or those ruling us?” he added. While Mr. Hegde’s tenure saw several scams unearthed leading to the arrest of some Ministers, the Karnataka Lokayukta has been emasculated since then. First, when a subsequent Lokayukta himself was charged with corruption and then removed, and later when the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government took away its powers to probe cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 and formed an Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), which directly reported to the Chief Minister. While both the BJP and JD(S) promised in their poll manifestos of 2018 to strengthen the Karnataka Lokayukta by restoring all powers and dissolving the ACB, neither party who has enjoyed power since 2018 has sought to do it.
Justice P. Vishwanath Shetty, who recently ended his tenure as Karnataka Lokayukta, has also batted for the dissolution of the ACB and restoration of its powers to the Karnataka Lokayukta. In fact, post his retirement in January 2022, the institution has been without a head.
The Lokayukta has impleaded itself and filed an affidavit demanding the abolition of ACB in a writ petition pending before the Karnataka High Court. Justice Shetty said the State saw four Chief Ministers from all three prominent political parties during his tenure (2017-22) and that no government was better than the other in implementing the Lokayukta’s recommendations. “Most have been ignored. The situation is so bad that an anti-corruption activist has filed a PIL in the High Court seeking directions to the State government to implement our recommendations,” he had said in January 2022.
With no perceptible difference between parties on corruption, it was unlikely to become a poll issue in the upcoming 2023 Assembly elections, political observers feel. But the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), after its victory in Punjab, seeks to use it to its advantage.
AAP has launched an aggressive campaign in the State, forcing Ministers and veteran politicians to take notice. For instance, senior BJP leader Lahar Singh, speaking in the Karnataka Legislative Council, recently came close to admitting to corruption within his party when he warned all the three major political parties – the BJP, Congress and JD(S) - that if they did not bring about a major change in how they functioned, new parties like AAP would sweep the State and make them irrelevant.
Justice Hegde argued corruption couldn’t be controlled legally or politically. “We are a society that today worships money and power. That needs to change. If people accused of social ills face the wrath of society, only then will we see some change,” he said.
Mr. Kempanna, who has emerged as an unlikely face of the campaign against corruption, hopes whoever comes to power in 2023 will be forced to tackle the issue in the face of growing public anger. The State’s contractors’ association has alleged that the demand for kickbacks from the bureaucracy and the political class is now as high as 40% of any work . “As contractors, we agree that we have also been part of the corrupt system, and what we have done is wrong. Unless we correct this rigged system, the State is going to lag behind in all development indices very soon,” he said.
For now, the association plans to stop all work across the State for a month and hold a mega protest rally in Bengaluru on May 25, demanding a cut in kickbacks. The demand is for a cut, not removal of kickbacks.