TNM spoke to several IAS officers in the Karnataka government who narrate how the uncertainty in the political corridors stalled projects.

A ricture of BS Yediyurappa on the far left, Narendra Modi in the centre and Basavaraj Bommai on the right in the backdrop of Vidhana Souda
news politics Sunday, August 08, 2021 - 18:30

An officer with the Labour department in Karnataka remembers how when Suresh Kumar took charge as the minister in September 2019, he made it clear that one of his priorities was to issue health cards for construction labourers. Even as the department made preparations for this, they were unaware that Suresh Kumar’s stint at the Labour Ministry would be for just four months. He had to make way for Shivaram Hebbar, an MLA previously with the Congress, changed his allegiance to the BJP and won the bye-polls in December 2019. The ministry was Yediyurappa’s gift to Hebbar for his loyalty. As Hebbar took charge in February 2020, it became clear that the health cards were clearly not on the new Minister’s priority list.  

In the next few months, Hebbar warmed up to the idea of the health cards but that’s when the next bout of political instability stuck. By July 2021, it became clear that Yediyurappa will no longer continue as Chief Minister and many ministers could be changed. As the new Chief Minister, Basavaraj Bommai’s cabinet was announced, it would have brought some sigh of relief for those in the labour ministry. Though Hebbar may not have been the best minister the department had, his appointment to the Labour department again, promised continuity.

Karnataka has been plagued by unending political uncertainty for three years now. First a rickety coalition between the Congress and JD(S) kept everyone on tenterhooks and then, despite forming a single party government, the BJP could not control the factional fights.  

The arduous task of accommodating legislators from warring factions meant that several times, ministers were changed in a span of just two years, adding to the chaos. For example, the Youth Empowerment and Sports Ministry was headed first by Eshwarappa and then taken over by CT Ravi and then once again changed to Narayana Gowda. Tourism ministry, too, has seen four ministers within a span of two years — CT Ravi, Anand Singh, Madhu Swamy and then CP Yogeshwar. Sugarcane Development and Directorate has again seen four ministers — CT Ravi, Shivaram Hebbar, Gopalaiah and MTB Nagaraj. Even ministries crucial in the time of pandemic like Medical Education have seen at least four changes of guards. The story across all ministries is almost the same.

With consecutive years of floods and then drought coupled with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s economic health has already been miserably hit. With the priority of most ministers differing and many trying to hang on to their posts, it has been a tough time for bureaucrats in the state. An IAS officer, speaking to TNM on the condition of anonymity, said that while many projects run on auto-pilot, with little attention needed from the minister in-charge, officers do need motivation and direction from the political executive to steer them to success on ground. 

Read: Karnataka BJP leaders and injunctions: The relationship continues

The officer said that as a result of political uncertainty, review meetings, which show the government’s intent towards a particular scheme, are often skipped. This results in lack of direction in the departments and the dearth of coordination between departments, he added.

“Some projects even get scrapped. Precious time and funds invested on projects get wasted, further demotivating the department. Each minister who takes charge tries to form his own team, shunting out officers at random,” an IAS officer told TNM. 

An IAS officer overseeing a project that is supervised by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), said that while they get regularly pulled up by the Union government, they did not have a minister to go to as the minister was always busy with the political crisis. 

“We had found a rhythm, reporting to the CM office or to his son who was sort of a super CM. However, after the crisis began, both have not paid enough attention to governance. We have many projects that need to be inaugurated, but MLAs keep asking for bhoomi pooja at a later date. That is a code for bribes. Normally, the CM office would intervene and tell the MLA that the inauguration has to go on and deal with the rest. But this oversight mechanism from the CM office was missing in the last few weeks,” another bureaucrat said.

The friction between the state government and the Union government, due to political differences despite being led by the same party in both places, has also led to drastic reduction of funds, an officer told TNM. The political intent of the BJP high command to reduce the influence of Yediyurappa resulted in stalling of release of funds for several projects, a senior officer in Delhi said. 

For example, till January 21, 2021, several central schemes in Karnataka have received less than 50% of the funds assured by the Union government. The Swachh Bharat Mission, the scheme launched in 2014 with the intent of eliminating open defecation, was to receive Rs 120 crore, but till December 2020, no funds have been released. The Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awaas Yojana, another central scheme launched in 2015 and aims to provide free housing for the rural poor, was allotted Rs 300 crore and this too is yet to receive any funds. 

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), which provides funds for programmes that work on nutrition of children, was allotted Rs 402 crore, but only Rs 117.29 crore has been disbursed. The Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation that focuses on water supply and sewerage among other issues in urban areas was to receive Rs 290.57 crore but has only received Rs 0.51 crore. The political acrimony between the state and central leadership has cost the state a lot of time, the officer in Delhi said.

Despite knowing this, the BJP leaders in the state, especially former CM Yediyurappa, could not aggressively demand the state’s dues from the Modi-led Union government for political reasons. 

On July 21, 2021, Yediyurappa held a review meeting with the then ministers Ashwatha Narayan, V Somanna, BC Patil, R Shankar, Prabhu Chavan and Srinivas Poojary in attendance. In the meeting, it was discussed that eight departments under the Karnataka government — Agriculture, Water Resources, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe, Backward Classes, Higher Education, Animal Husbandry and Sericulture — are due to receive Rs 29,739 crore for several schemes. This money is to be released by both state and Union governments. An amount of Rs 16,534 crore is still pending with the Union government as on July, 2021. 

In the state BJP, too, many officers complain that there were multiple power centres that added to the pandemonium. The interference of Yediyurappa’s family in several departments cut off access to the former CM. And in turn, this created an atmosphere of dilemma and indecisiveness. 

One such instance was narrated to TNM by a senior officer in the government. Based on the experts’ committee report, the Karnataka government held a meeting on May 4 to procure medicines that will be required to treat COVID-19 patients in July. The meeting was chaired by Ashwatha Narayan and a list of 27 medicines, including Remdesivir, Methylprednisolone, dexamethasone, Vitamin C, Zinc and Paracetamol, were to be procured through a tender process on priority. Initially, Rs 80.43 crore was allotted for the procurement. However, after this, due to lack of clarity and direction from the government, and amidst reports of a possible change in leadership in the state, the decision awarding the tender got delayed. 

While Yediyurappa was credited with working earnestly, even in the midst of a medical emergency like the COVID-19 crisis, there is no denying the fact that he has also contributed to this policy paralysis in the state. With a new Chief Minister and cabinet in charge, most bureaucrats are hoping that there would be no changes at least for the remaining two-year tenure of this government.

Read: Opinion: Karnataka deserves better than a govt remote-controlled from Delhi

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