The power of Shakti: How it benefits women of Karnataka, what it costs the state government

TNIE reporters do a deep-dive analysis into the newly rolled-out Shakti scheme, which offers free travel to women across the state in all non-premium government buses.
Image used for representational purpose. (Photo | Shashidhar Byrappa)
Image used for representational purpose. (Photo | Shashidhar Byrappa)

BENGALURU:  One of the five promises that helped the Congress party win Karnataka is the Shakti scheme, which offers free travel to women across the state in all non-premium government buses. While all other promises are yet to be implemented, the Shakti scheme was rolled out on June 11 and since then, ridership in all four bus corporations -- Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), Kalyana Karnataka Road Transport Corporation (KKRTC), North West Karnataka Road Transport Corporation (NWKRTC) and Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) -- has been soaring.

Lauding Chief Minister Siddaramaiah for providing free travel for women in KSRTC buses, Danamma of Bagalkot, a homemaker going to Mysuru, said she is travelling on a KSRTC bus for the first time after ten years. “Had the government not offered free travel, I would never visit any tourist and religious places,” said Danamma, who was travelling with her grandmother, sister and three daughters. She has decided to finish her tours soon as she feels the free travel sop may stop after parliamentary elections in 2024.

Several women farmers from Hassan and surrounding areas who visit Madikeri and Kodagu markets and also go door-to-door to sell locally grown vegetables, said they are able to save over Rs 200 every day with the Shakti scheme.

Double fleet size
“The dramatic rise in ridership on government-run buses — without an increase in the number of buses — has resulted in severe overcrowding. Meanwhile, private buses and shared autos are staring at a steep drop in ridership because of women shifting to free government buses,” said urban mobility expert Shreya Gadepalli.

“The scheme is commendable for its intent, but many women are unable to benefit from it. The stagnant bus fleet means many locations are unserved or underserved. Women in these areas are forced to take private buses, shared autos or other modes of transport at significant personal expense. For the Shakti scheme to truly empower women, the bus fleet must be doubled to expand connectivity, enhance frequency and erase crowding. Steps must also be taken to make the walk to bus stops safe and convenient,” she added.

The Shakti Smart Card presents an opportunity to bring private and informal services into the ambit of the scheme. Women can be allowed to travel for free on any bus, public or private, and bus operators can be reimbursed, based on the number of cards tapped on their buses, said Gadepalli.

Mobility expert from the Indian Insitute of Science (IISc) Ashish Verma said while the Shakti scheme is a good first step in improving access for women, especially among middle and low-income households, its benefits can be short-lived or narrow, if several other key service elements are not taken care of. They include improving service frequency to absorb additional demand, and expanding the public transport network to cover all areas effectively.

“Moreover, financial sustainability of such schemes is challenging, as has been the experience of other countries with similar schemes. Ensuring affordability of public transport across all gender and income groups is equally important, and should receive equal attention from the government,” Verma said.

Shaheen Shasa of the Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike recalled how since 2013, they have been urging the state government to bring down bus fares and offer free travel to women, transgenders and senior citizens, similar to the Delhi, Punjab and Tamil Nadu government schemes.

“By removing the cost of travel, the scheme enables women and transgenders greater freedom of movement, which enables better access to education, livelihood, healthcare and leisure. The popularity and success of the scheme are evident from how daily ridership has increased significantly. Women are travelling more than they did before, they are saving travel cost and spending it on other essentials for themselves or their families. Women who walked 3-4 km every day, are now able to use the bus. Not only female, even male ridership has increased. The scheme is a success,” Shasa said.

Glitches in Shakti
As the scheme mandates local domicile, Shasa said many migrants cannot avail of the benefit. He said the Shakti smart card is unnecessary, it creates a barrier for access and carries the risk of privacy violation associated with it. Also, inadequate service coverage and frequency of service need to be fixed.

“The scheme is expected to cost the government over Rs 4,000 crore every year, which is a small portion of the state’s budget. When we consider how this expands economic and social opportunities for a vast section of society, it should be seen as a social investment and development, and not a burden or a loss. We need more funding to expand service coverage and hire more crew,” Shasa said, and added that in the next five years, if these issues are addressed, there will be an amazing transformation in mobility, economic and social development in Karnataka. It would be a good use of public funds.

“Tallinn in Estonia, Luxembourg, some cities in China have had free public transport for some years now. The benefits of making public transport free for all (with a corresponding increase in the fleet and significant disincentives for private vehicles) are manifold... Increasing the mode share of public transport is the only real way out of congestion, emission, pollution, high fuel consumption, accidents and loss of green cover in urban areas. The cost of this is actually an investment into better, healthier, safer and more livable cities, and the benefits and returns, if quantified, will far outweigh the costs,” said Shasa.

Complaints galore
Following multiple instances of drivers and conductors behaving in an unruly manner, women passengers being hit by the staff, and a driver menacingly trying to run over a group of women in Koratagere in Tumakuru, the bus corporation issued a circular, stating that disciplinary action will be initiated against staff who fail to behave courteously with passengers.

Quarrels between conductors and women over producing Aadhaar card or any address proof for tickets, fights for seats, throwing stones for not stopping the bus, buses not reaching on time etc, have become common after the Shakti launch. Seetamma, a retired schoolteacher, said many drivers don’t stop buses when they see only women waiting. College students are also put to hardship. A college girl fell unconscious due to suffocation in the bus, near Kummanasirasagi village of Yadrami taluk, Kalaburagi, on June 26. The students deboarded the bus and staged a road block agitation, demanding additional buses for students from Kummanasirasagi, and got a bus for their village.

No government buses
The Shakti scheme may have been implemented, yet there are over 2,500 villages across Karnataka that do not have a government bus, pointed out KSRTC Staff and Workers’ Federation. There are places dominated by private buses, like Udupi, where women are yet to benefit fully. The government introduced 20 JnNURM buses in 2019-20 in Udupi, but only 12 buses operated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their number came down to 7, while various interior routes still have no government buses.

Women who wish to visit Kollur Mookambika Temple, Anegudde Sri Vinayaka Temple, Sri Durgaparameshwari Temple, and Mandarthi have no facility. Byndoor MLA Gururaj Gantihole said he will speak to the concerned to get government buses in Kollur.

Private travel operators and auto drivers have been complaining of having lost a major part of their business after the Shakti scheme, as their customers now use government buses. Dakshina Kannada Private Bus Owners Association says that after the scheme started, they saw a 10-20 per cent drop in passengers.

Auto drivers are complaining that their average daily earnings have been hit by over 30 per cent, with both women and men travelling on government buses.

Taking note of the plight of private bus owners and their employees, KSRTC Staff and Workers’ Federation wrote a letter to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, urging him to absorb private buses and their staff into the bus corporation, like the Devaraj Urs government did in 1976, after abolishing contract carriages. Federation secretary Vijay Bhaskar, in the letter said, “As more women are shifting towards KSRTC from private buses, the drivers, operators, technical staff and others are at risk of losing their jobs. Owners who have invested money are also in trouble.”

Recalling the measures taken in 1976 by then CM Devaraj Urs, after abolishing the Contract Carriages Abolition Act 1976, Vijay Bhaskar said, “Private buses, including the staff affected by the move, were absorbed into KSRTC. In a similar way, we request private buses and their staff be taken over by KSRTC.”

Drain on exchequer
In the backdrop of the government’s estimation that the programme would need more than Rs 4,000 crore every year, Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Change Prof D Rajasekhar said the Shakti scheme will be a drain on the state’s exchequer, and insisted that a study is done at the end of one year to know the implications of free travel on women, especially the unorganised sector that will give a clear picture on the number of women who travelled, expenditure by the government and revenue of bus corporations.

“Though the government is offering free travel in non-premium buses, those who have got used to luxury and comfort will prefer premium buses. Shakti scheme will benefit women in the unorganised sector. Buses that were operating with a few passengers are running full. A woman in Ballari can travel to a coffee estate in Kodagu if there is work for her, and return with full wages. Agricultural labourers, garment workers, daily wage workers and others will be able to save the money, and use it for something else," she said.

There are many men, students and senior citizens who are urging the government to make public transport free for all. Gadinada Kannadigas (Kannadigas living outside the state bordering Karnataka) say the scheme must be extended to women of Kerala’s border district of Kasaragod, as thousands travel from Kasargod to Mangaluru for education, healthcare etc.

Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy said the Shakti scheme has received an overwhelming response and the total ridership and revenue of all four bus corporations has witnessed a jump, crossing 1 crore every day. “Salaries of garment workers, housekeeping, daily wage labourers and unorganised sector are not more than Rs 12,000. After the Shakti scheme, many have told us they are able to save more than Rs 1,000 and they can now use it for other needs.”

“We are taking all feedback on the scheme and are trying to address the problems of people. We will be inducting 4,000 new buses to the bus corporations and hiring 9,000 staff,” Reddy said.

(With inputs from Uday Kumar B R from Hassan, Arpitha from Shivamogga, Prakash Samaga from Udupi, Ramakrishna Badseshi from Kalburgi, Prajna G R from Madikeri, Divya Cutinho from Mangaluru)

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