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Monday, October 16, 2000

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A city held hostage


Anjali Prayag

In a city of netizens and cyber cafes, jungle law prevails. Yes, you guessed right... the Veerappan factor playing havoc with Silicon city. By kidnapping Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar, the handle-bar moustached bandit has succeeded in dislodging the Bang alorean's life for more than two months.

And the long-drawn period of strife has not done the city's image any good either. In fact, Michael Dell -- CEO, Dell Computers -- called off his visit to the city for the launch of his customised PCs, owing to the bandh called on September 28 by the Kar nataka Film Chamber to press for the quick release of Rajkumar. Earlier, the Nepalese Prime Minister decided to skip the city although it was on his itinerary.

From daily-wage labourers to blue-chip software professionals... the repercussions of the hostage drama have been felt in all walks of life.

The Kannada film industry, in a show of solidarity with its biggest star, suspended all activity two days after the kidnapping. Little did the film-workers realise that the sandalwood smuggler would hold the popular actor hostage for such an extended per iod.

``For daily-wage artistes this has been a nightmare,'' says one junior artiste on condition of anonymity. The Karnataka Film Artistes' Association decided to salvage the situation by distributing a daily ration of rice, dal and oil till shooting resumed. Sources in the industry now say that even the association is running out of funds and resources.

For workers who put up the film posters, brokers who transport the reels between theatres, lithograph owners who print the posters, the daily earnings of Rs 80 to Rs 100 vanished. Many of them have become hotel workers and coolies at the railway station. It is a clear case of the `spirit willing, but not the flesh'...

Reeling under

The Karnataka Film Employees' Federation, which had donned the self-imposed shutdown, finally relented and decided to resume shooting on September 25. Industry sources say that on the first day, none of the film editing, recording, re-recording and dubbi ng studios were booked. Says a manager at one of the film production units, ``Everyone is waiting for the other to take the first step.'' Fear of violence lurks in the world of the 5,000 workers in the glamour biz.

K.C.N. Chandrashekhar, President of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, says that while it's difficult to estimate the industry's loss, the daily transactions of the film industry in normal times amount to about Rs 3 crore.

Theatre owners, too, have their tales of woe. Though they decided to re-open a month after the drama began, the response of the movie-going public was understandably lukewarm.

The first few days did not see more than a 10-per cent turnout in the audience which gradually improved to about 50 per cent.

Theatre owners are normally paid a daily rent by either the film producer or distributor to screen the movie. ``This amount is enough to pay wages to our workers and maintain the theatres,'' says one theatre owner. Deprived of the daily rent during the s hutdown period, theatre owners were only too keen to resume screening the films.

Similar problems haunted the 2,000-odd TV artistes working on serials telecast on the four Kannada channels. Sridevi, executive committee member of the Karnataka Video and TV Chamber of Commerce, says that sponsors had threatened to withdraw if the produ cers continued to repeat old episodes. She put the small-screen loss at Rs 25 crore.

In the unorganised sector, the situation is even worse. August and September are normally good months for orchestras and musicians, thanks to the profusion of Ganesha pandals and Dasara festivities in the city. For instance, Srinivas and his five-member orchestra earn about Rs 10,000 a day during the season. This year they have drawn a complete blank. ``I have to pay my boys although I'm not making a penny,'' Srinivas says.

To visit or not...

While the entertainment industry has been directly hit by the suspension of activity, the hospitality industry has indirectly borne the brunt. Several seminars and conferences were called off, resulting in mass cancellation of reservations.

For a State that is normally favoured by foreign tourists, the bandh has been bad news. A source at the State Tourism Directorate Office, says, ``The news is being telecast by BBC which has made matters worse. We receive plenty of calls from foreign tour ists wishing to know whether it's safe to travel in the State. We don't make a commitment. We appraise them of the situation and leave the decision to them.'' But tour conductors and travel agents swear that tourism has come down by almost 50 per cent.

Memories of another day

In a situation peculiar to Karnataka, most of the labourers in the State hail from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Fearing a violent backlash from Kannada chauvinists, Tamilian workers rushed back home. Memories of the Cauvery riots still haunt many.

Construction activity slowed down considerably. Says a small-time builder in the city, ``Tamil workers constitute a majority of our labour class. Initially, a lot of them fled home, but now they are coming back in trickles.''

During the first week of the kidnapping episode, temporary losses were felt in the halls of the Bangalore Stock Exchange, the Coffee Futures Exchange and the State's silk exchanges.

For the first 12 days, the ban on liquor sales cost the State Exchequer a loss of Rs 20 crore. Bars and restaurants were prohibited from serving liquor for nearly two weeks. The city has about 3,000 wine shops and bars; forced shutters cost them an avera ge loss of about Rs 10,000 a day. Says an employee of a five-star hotel, ``Our guests come here to enjoy their drink and eating is just incidental. This ban affected us very badly, about Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 3 lakh losses in just the first three days after the kidnapping.''

Shops and other commercial establishments were at the mercy of rumour-mongers. As the owner of a popular retail store explained, ``The kidnapping is like a Damocles sword, hanging up there, we don't know when it will strike us.'' Going by past experience s, shops generally bear the brunt of any riot-related violence. However, the shop-keeper hastens to add, ``This is strange to Bangalore where people are generally peace-loving.''

At the outlaw's mercy

The prolonged strife has magnified the economic losses. In the first two days alone, the losses to the IT industry were reckoned to be about Rs 100 crore. Says an analyst, ``A loss of close to a billion rupees in revenues is estimated on the assumption t hat an average IT professional earns $ 20 an hour. There are about 65,000 IT professionals in the city employed with various companies.''

The companies try to make up for lost time in the fixed-price projects by asking employees to work extra hours. However, the companies cannot bill for the time lost.

Bangalore plays host to IT.Com every year, where plenty of deals are tied up. However, a source in the State Industries Department was uncertain about the turnout at this year's extravaganza scheduled in November.

The kidnap episode has cast a pall over plans for Kannada Rajyothsava (November 1) celebrations. Even the celebrations for the S.M. Krishna Government's completion of one year in office, on October 11, were muted in keeping with the mood in the State.

Krishna's much-touted success at the Global Investors' Meet in July which promised to fetch Rs-27,000 crore worth of investments to the State and his high-profile meetings with the likes of Bill Gates and Jack Welch may come to naught if he's not able to twist the ears of a native outlaw.

The day of the innovators...

The Governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka may have failed repeatedly in clinching a deal with sandalwood smuggler Veerappan for the release of the kidnapped Kannada filmstar, Rajkumar. But, thanks to the hostage drama, a range of deals were struck by i nnovators in Bangalore city.

* On the night of August 1, when the entire city was slam shut for fear of violence, a tiny shop in the busy Avenue Road area remained partly open. The reason: A tailor was busy stitching the red-and-yellow Karnataka flags. He saw an immense business opp ortunity on the horizon. And he was not wrong. The next day, all vehicles and glass buildings sported the flag. Two months after the kidnapping, the flags were still flying high, showing solidarity with the thespian.

* The Web site, Bangalorebest.com, printed and sold stickers claiming, ``We love Dr. Rajkumar'' in bright red and yellow. Now, a large number of autorickshaws and taxis sport this sticker on their bumpers.

* Ramesh Kumar of Bangalore came up with yet another winner in these times of strife. He put up Rajkumarkidnap.com featuring news updates on the incident, profiles of Rajkumar and Veerappan and related photographs. ``We also have survival kits for people if taken hostage,'' Ramesh says!

Pic.: RAF personnel guard a cinema hall in Bangalore.

Picture by Saggere Ramaswamy

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