The Congress' march to victory in Karnataka was paved, many believe, by the follies and misgovernance of the BJP-led government. The new government, to be formed soon, cannot afford to repeat those mistakes. In a candid chat with Business Today, Professor Rajeev Gowda, a professor of public policy at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, who doubles up as the Karnataka spokesman for the Congress party, speaks on the challenges before the next state government on a visit to New Delhi. Edited excerpts.
On spurring growth in backward regions
The Hyderabad-Karnataka region has got special status through a constitutional amendment - Article 371 (J). This provides for special funds, local reservation in education and government jobs to this historically backward region (consisting of Raichur, Gulbarga, Bidar, Koppal, Yadagir and Bellary districts). The new status, when implemented, will spur growth and give the Congress a chance to reward the region that has voted substantially for it. That could really help boost the economy.
On agenda Bangalore
With the state and the city having been under the BJP, we have ended up as a garbage city from a garden city. The garbage mafia rules the roost and the mismanagement of garbage has been causing huge health problems not just in the city but in villages as well. We need to do a few things such as scientific management of waste and fix the existing systemic incentive problems.
While Bangalore is where the crisis has hit hard, similar environmental problems exist across every urbanising part of Karnataka. It has been chaotic growth. Every growing town pays hardly any attention to its water table, its lakes, environmental management and so forth. Real estate lobbies have been converting farmlands into revenue layouts without proper infrastructure. These do not help anyone. The (new) government needs to play a more proactive role in making sure that urban growth is harnessed but without creating any future environmental problems.
On water shortage
Water is certainly another major challenge. Part of it is because of the historic legacy of unequal treaties with Tamil Nadu and Cauvery water-sharing. Regions such as southeast Karnataka have never been a water-rich area. So, we have had a long history of rainwater harvesting such as tanks and so on. But there has been a problem of siltation due to chain tanks. Bangalore has had excessive ground-water extraction too. Digging (too many) borewells and growing wrong crops such as, say, people in Doddabalapur (in Bangalore district) growing areca nuts have affected the water table badly. However, there can be remedies.
On the investment climate in the state
Karnataka had a very good investment climate during SM Krishna's tenure as chief minister. It was seen as a facilitative government. In the last few years, however, the government has been seen as predatory. The focus was more on extortion with permits not given on time, inconsistencies in notifications and so on. There has been no predictable environment (for investors) to operate in. That needs to change. Ultimately, it is the industry that creates jobs.
On Congress manifesto promising uninterrupted power
I do hope (that we fulfill this promise). It may need commissioning additional plants in other parts of the country, buying power from elsewhere and so on. The BJP did try to set up a captive plant in Chhattisgarh but their complaint was that the Centre was not cooperating... I do agree that 24-hour power with free power could be disastrous.
On youth and skill development
I think these are really important and critical. The Congress and other parties have talked about giving free laptops, tablets and the like. These are not just freebies but which can remove the digital divide in Karnataka. However, it is not just about access to the poor. It is about creating a strong educational system that can cater to the job needs of a changing world. We need to create practical and soft skill training modules. With its great reservoir of IT talent, I agree Karnataka can pioneer many innovative steps such as cloud education.
We need to create new energy. There can be many random acts of kindness where people come together and work out a solution for some social problem. We have to think of how to create a great educational module for people with less capability; we could outsource these to a cloud. These could be transformational.
On Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Mohandas Pai's political initiative
I appreciate their initiative. Historically, corporates have funded parties very surreptitiously. And, those crony corporates have taken back at least Rs 100 for every rupee they have contributed to a political party. It has usually been the tax-payer's money being ripped off.
Bangalore, however, has been a special case as it gave rise to clean capitalists. This was due to an historical accident with the IT industry not having had to bribe the system for permits and so forth. Some may call them (Mazumdar-Shaw and Pai) elitists, but they have the moral authority when they talk about investing in good governance and putting Bangalore's agenda on the table. I also appreciate them willing to contribute money to candidates.
When I went for the launch (of Bangalore Political Action Committee or B.PAC), I told them that they give money to a candidate only after the nominations are filed. And, the money they give is about Rs 3 lakh or Rs 5 lakh. This is too little, too late. The expenditure limits are anyway farcical and unrealistic (the country's electoral laws allow a candidate to spend a maximum of Rs 16 lakh only for an assembly constituency). I appreciate the fact that they are willing to contribute openly, but it now needs to be on a different scale. Also, you should identify people like me at least a year ahead of elections and openly contribute. Adding credibility to a candidature comes from building tremendous momentum, which is costly. You cannot say: 'Go get your ticket and come and we will give you some loose change'.*
On cleaning the mess created by the mining mafia and so on
Well, there are mining barons across party lines. The mining sector (in Karnataka) has almost shut down as an economic activity. If mining can be managed in a legal, environmentally respectful manner, it is a legitimate source of economic growth. We must find a way of that to happen and not to allow the pillage that took place.*
On why things should change under the Congress
Misgovernance and corruption is a sure losing proposition. Why would anyone want to repeat those mistakes? We have an opportunity to showcase Karnataka in a year's time and this can be a story that can be replicated in the rest of the country. The BJP had an historic opportunity that they missed.
Also, the Congress has a much bigger responsibility in getting more seats from Karnataka in 2014 [general elections are scheduled at the latest before May 2014]; we have seven seats now with a potential to go up to 28. If we can't do that, we will be missing out on an opportunity to balance out any loss for the party elsewhere in 2014.
On Congress providing quality leadership
People like Mallikarjun Kharge and Siddaramaiah [leading chief minister contenders] have been in politics for a long time without any major mud either thrown at them or that which has stuck to them. In that sense, they have certainly been cleaner. There are accusations that there are many politicians such as real estate barons who have made enormous fortunes in a short time and have been ruling the roost in Karnataka. If we make such narrow interests hijack the party's large interests, then we are not looking at a great future. We have to be strict on that front.
(*This story has been updated in the paragraphs with the asterisk and for a byline change.)