Sunday story: Poor, but driven North Karnataka warriors make our state proud
Fighting for the country and safeguarding its borders has been a passion for the Sikhs, Gorkhas and the Rajputs. But who would have known that North Karnataka, which has earned the dubious distinction of being a backward region, is increasingly becoming a hub of soldiers? Interestingly, more and more youth are making a beeline to recruitment rallies to join the forces, primarily because of the unemployment problem triggered by recurring drought conditions. Many villages in the region have turned into ‘Soldiers’ Villages’ as almost every household has at least one member in different wings of the armed forces. Vittal Shastri visits some of these villages to examine the socio-economic condition of the people and the increasing patriotic spirit among the younger generation.
Fifty-nine year old farm labourer Yallappa Beleri, who hails from the tiny hamlet of Hatalageri in drought-prone Gadag district, recollects the harrowing experience of going to bed on an empty stomach and the hardship he had faced to feed his four sons and a daughter nearly two decades ago. He had to struggle hard to make both ends meet as he used to draw a paltry wage of Rs 40 per day. Living a hand to mouth existence for years had turned their lives miserable.
Both Yallappa and his wife Neelavva burst into tears while narrating their story and take solace from the fact that the times have changed after their three sons joined the Indian Army. Now, his fourth son, who is a school drop-out, is also being trained to get a job such as that of a cook in the Army as he could not complete his PUC like his elder brothers.
The plight of another farmer, Satyappa Benthur of the same village is no different. Three of his four sons are serving the Indian Army after suffering chronic poverty during their childhood. Like Yallappa Beleri, Satyappa also stopped working as a Hamali in the Gadag agriculture produce market committee (APMC) and manages to have two square meals a day after his sons began to get a handsome salary in the Army. Many households in this village have at least one or two youth serving the BSF, Army and Central paramilitary forces. The village takes pride in having more than hundred soldiers though it has only a four thousand strong population.
Gadag, Haveri, Belagavi and several districts of North Karnataka have many such villages that have become hubs of soldiers. The soldiers including retired servicemen have formed their own organizations in many villages to guide other youth to join the Army and instill the spirit of patriotism. Many youth feel that an Army job is the only way out owing to recurring drought conditions that have devastated the region over the years. They also claim that getting a job in the Army is easier and a better choice for them instead of searching for other government jobs or migrating to far-flung areas like Goa or the coastal region in search of employment.
“I could manage to buy only one pair of clothing for my elder son to wear and he used to wash it twice a day as my paltry wages were not enough. He had to work as a part-time worker in a flour mill to gain the minimum qualification required for the Army. We had to sleep on an empty stomach for many days. Now, I have built a small house by taking a loan based on the salary of my three children as they have been serving the Army since nearly one decade. I can also easily perform my daughter’s marriage with their earnings”, farmer Yallappa Beleri recalled with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Drawing inspiration from the villagers who had joined the Indian army during the 1990s, more youth nurture the dream of becoming soldiers as they feel that agriculture is a loss-making occupation due to failure of the monsoon during the last few decades. Most of them don’t pursue higher education and don’t prepare for civil service exams due to their socio-economic condition. Recruitment rallies in the region are witnessing even graduates opting to join the armed forces. Their hard-working nature and the nutritious Jowar roti, which is the staple food of North Karnataka, has helped these rural youth to stay fit.
“I used to lift boulders weighing more than 60 kg and more than a quintal bag containing food grains at the rural sports meet during the annual fair. Proper exercise in the wrestling arena helped me pass the physical test in the first attempt during the Army selection. But, we cannot prepare ourselves for the Indian Navy or Air force as a lot of study is required for it. We could not get enough time for this as we had to feed our poor family”, said 26-year old soldier, Shivanand Beleri who has been serving the Indian Army for six years.
Wrestling houses, once ubiquitous in rural areas of North Karnataka, are on the brink of extinction. These wrestling houses had served as a breeding ground for soldiers in the region. But, the number of wrestlers, who belong to the farming community, is dwindling due to negligence of the government. Just a decade ago, people would come in hordes to witness wrestling competitions by paying hefty fees. But, this trend has disappeared forcing the organizers to take recourse to voluntary donations.
“Ours is a joint family of six brothers and we have 25 acres of rain-fed land. We cannot totally depend on agriculture due to lack of irrigation facilities. My younger brother and I joined the armed forces ten years ago. Now, I feel proud to serve the nation. There is also an urgent need to revive wrestling houses and provide adequate facilities that will help youth aspiring to become soldiers.” said BSF jawan Basavantappa Kari of Hatalageri village.
The number of youth joining the Army has been increasing manifold during the last two decades. But, lack of adequate preparation continues to haunt them. “I had easily passed the physical test conducted by the Army in the first attempt. But, I failed in the written test. I have crossed the age limit for the Army. Now, I am preparing for the BSF”, said 23-year old Basavaraj Chalawadi, who is one among several unemployed graduates of Doni village which has more than 50 soldiers serving in different wings of the forces.
It is not just youth from the backward region or poor families, even economically well-versed people are keen to take part in Army recruitment rallies. Many serve as veterinary doctors to take care of the army dog squads and horses. “Our village has more than 40 soldiers though it has merely a thousand strong population. Awareness among the youth to join the Army has been increasing as we guide them in preparing for various tests of the armed forces whenever we return to our village during leave and after retirement”, said ex-serviceman Shivanand Desai of Kaliwal village in Savanur taluk of Haveri district.
‘... But awareness low, compared to other states’
Govind Kalawad is commandant of the Maratha Light Infantry Regimental Centre in Belagavi. He shares his experience about the youth from North Karnataka joining the armed forces and their socio-economic condition as he hails from Dharwad. Here are excerpts from his interview.
Q&A: What is the proportion of North Karnatak youth joining the Indian Army via recruitment rallies?
We carry out recruitment rallies based on the requirement after obtaining directions from New Delhi. It is difficult to compare the number of recruits from North Karnataka and Maharashtra. We had conducted a rally recently in Belagavi and more recruitment rallies are scheduled in Kolhapur where the yardstick is different. More rallies are planned in Kalaburagi, Gadag and Ballari too. We look at region based requirements and not whether the place has more poor people or more drought-hit areas.
Is the socio-economic condition influencing North Karnataka youth to join the Indian Army?
I would disagree that youth from North Karnataka are joining the armed forces because of backwardness of the region and their poor economic condition. We can’t describe youth from this region as downtrodden and illiterate. There may be some backward places but this region is not more backward compared to many states like Bihar and Haryana where we see more people joining the Army. Every household has a soldier in these states.
What is hindering youth while preparing for recruitment rallies of the armed forces?
Awareness about the Army in North Karnataka is less compared to the northern parts of the country. If more emphasis is laid on this aspect, more people will join the forces from the region. Our youth will improve their performance if they prepare well.
How do you see the fitness level of rural youth in backward North Karnataka?
I am responsible for training the recruits who have been selected to the Maratha regiment. The ability of youth will be properly checked before they come for training. But, the overall fitness level of rural youth in the region is pretty high. We just need to direct them to hone their skills and utilize their physical ability better and become good soldiers. They have the calibre, knowledge and intelligence. What is lacking is guidance.
Is there lack of awareness among rural youth about joining the higher ranks in the Air Force and Navy?
General awareness about the Army, Navy and Indian Air Force is good today in North Karnataka. Therefore, we see thousands of people gathering to pay respects to the martyred soldiers of the region. Itis only the lack of clarity about how to prepare for the written examination. Proper guidance for rural youth from the State Sainik Board and district administration will help more people to join the forces.