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Belgaum means business

The police lathicharge that happened in Belgaum two weeks ago took Uday Kinjawadekar by complete surprise. There was nothing new about the cops’ use of force. It was just that Kinjawadekar, whose cloth shop is located one street away from Rani Chennamma Circle — where Belgaum’s political action happens — didn’t get a whiff of trouble. “Life went on as usual. I learnt about the lathicharge from television reports,” says Kinjawadekar, who also writes a news blog on Belgaum.

It’s ho-hum time in this North Karnataka town, where language and border have been cropping up as hot-button issues every now and then for the last four decades or so. Once again, Maharashtra politicians have been claiming rights to the region because of its majority Marathi-speaking population. Out of Belgaum’s present population of 9.57 lakh, 3.6 lakh are Marathi-speaking and three lakh are Kannada speaking. But Kinjawadekar feels that the border row is now only a political game. “A few people collect at Rani Chennamma Circle and make some noise. The rest of Belgaum goes about its business,” he says.

The border issue has clearly become a non-issue for the city’s residents. “The border problem blows up once in every five years. It’s like being visited by the flu,” says Nitin Khot, a former economist at the London School of Economics, who is now settled in the city.

In 2008, before the Karnataka assembly polls, the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies conducted a study on what the people of Belgaum felt about the border row. Only 41 per cent respondents had any knowledge about demands for merging Karnataka’s Marathi-speaking areas with Maharashtra — an indication that the linguistic divide had taken a backseat in the area.

“Three generations of Belgaum residents have wasted their time fighting a language-led war. Now, no one is interested in it,” says Rajiv Toppanov, president of a local political outfit, the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (KRV).

The talking point in Belgaum, instead, is its economic and infrastructure growth. The city is an old industrial hub — it has over 200 foundries, hydraulic and crankshaft units. It is within striking distance of three major export outlets — Bangalore, Mumbai and Goa. And, with three universities, seven engineering colleges, two medical colleges and 110 industrial training institutions, it’s an education destination. “Belgaum has industrial, educational and strategic advantages which it is now cashing in on,” believes Toppanov.

Belgaum looks like a town in transition. A drive through the city is like sitting through a three-dimensional history lesson. The cantonment in Belgaum — which is home to several defence divisions — is dotted with sprawling, old British bungalows, with red tiled roofs, long drive-ways and gardens. Cross the Camp, as it is locally known, and the time zone suddenly changes. You enter a bustling Indian metropolis — with highrise residential apartments, a glass-facade luxury business hotel, a multi-specialty hospital, a mall and a multiplex.

Ingrid Yadav lives at Lakshmi Tek, a new residential colony being built adjoining the cantonment. Multistorey residential apartments are being frantically constructed on both sides of her cozy, yellow bungalow. Across the road, construction of a school is near completion.

Lakshmi Tek may be the new, happening address in town, but for Yadav it is still synonymous with open fields where she plucked wild flowers as a child. “In the last six years, the fields have vanished and houses have sprung up,” says Yadav, 54, who lives a retired life in her hometown.

There have been other developments as well. The Kapil theatre — where Yadav watched Rock Hudson films as a young girl — is now Nucleus Mall. Big Cinemas is starting a multiplex in it. A local construction company, Belavista, is building Belgaum’s first gated residential complex of row houses.

The information technology industry is also finding a foothold in Belgaum. When R.K. Patil sold his Bangalore-based IT start-up, Smart Yantra, in 2002, he wanted to try something new — not on the technology front but location-wise. “I wanted to work out of a Tier II town,” says Patil, who founded Vayavya Labs —which works in cutting-edge embedded systems technology — in Belgaum in 2004. The company won the Tata NEN Award for one of the hottest new start-ups two years ago. In the last five years, 15 IT companies have set up shop in the city.

Patil believes that Belgaum offers the ecosystem required for a global industry like IT to take off. “The city has a cosmopolitan culture, thanks to a large army presence and a high number of educational institutions. Also, there is a huge professional talent pool,” he explains.

Last year, Patil started an initiative — called ITBelgaum — to help the IT industry take root in the city. “We conduct seminars at local engineering colleges to inform students that IT exists in Belgaum and they don’t have to rush to Bangalore to find jobs,” says Patil. The forum is also asking the local manufacturing industry to use Belgaum-based software firms to cater to their IT needs.

In another part of the city, at the Servo Controls Aerospace office in Udyambag — Belgaum’s industrial area — prototypes of an aircraft wheel, actuators and valves line the conference room table. The company — which started out of a garage in Belgaum in 2002 — made the wheel for HAL’s Saras aircraft, sensors for the Chandrayaan moon mission and supplies valves for Airbus’s A-380 aircraft.

Servo Controls, which has a staff of 180 people, works like any global multinational, claims director Dinesh Dhadoti. “We have flexi-times and a hierarchy-free work environment,” he says.

Aerospace, clearly, looks set to take flight in the city. Aerospace engineering firm Quest Global Inc has built a 262-acre aerospace special economic zone (SEZ) on the outskirts of Belgaum. “The SEZ is expected to create 7,000 jobs,” says Basavaraj Sugandhi, manager, administration, Quest. The company already runs two units — with 200 employees — out of the SEZ.

As Belgaum grows, planned infrastructure development is becoming a focus area. Last month, KRV’s Toppanov set up a forum — called Belgaum Next — where any local can become a member and give suggestions on building a better Belgaum. “We are holding a conference next month, where we will discuss issues such as water, power, transport, sanitation and building smart communities,” says Toppanov, adding that the forum has 1,000 members.

Belgaum’s old communities are clearly making space for a new way of life. The 100-year-old MK Swamy Bakery — the oldest in town — is testimony to this. The old-world bakery building — with its red-tiled roof and heavy wooden doors — looks straight out of a book on British history.

But the bakery is a modern-day confectionary connoisseur’s delight — stocking everything from tetra pack milk, brown bread to mozzarella cheese. “In the last 10 years, we have gone from selling 19 items to 216 items,” says Satyan Swamy, the third-generation owner of the bakery.

Like his bread, Belgaum is rising. But not in the way some politicians want it to. The rise is up the ladder of success.

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