Ticket to Freedom: the Shakti free bus travel scheme for women in Karnataka

As the scheme completes a month on July 11, the govt reports 15.5 crore commuters benefitted, in addition to giving a fillip to temple tourism in the state

On a bus ride during the Karnataka campaigning, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi offers a woman commuter his seat. (screengrab from @RahulGandhi/Twitter)
On a bus ride during the Karnataka campaigning, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi offers a woman commuter his seat. (screengrab from @RahulGandhi/Twitter)

Naheed Ataulla

Siri Gowri, honorary vice-president of Karnataka Jana Shakti, has—for the first time in her life—been able to save Rs 1,800 out of her monthly budget. And it is thanks to the Shakti programme from the newly elected Congress government in Karnataka, which provides free bus rides to women on State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC) buses.*  

An activist who takes up the causes of pourakarmikas (municipality workers, mostly sweepers) and women employed in the unorganised sector, Gowri uses public transport to commute. "This is the biggest gift by the Congress government to women which has given them independence in mobility," she says.

On July 11, Shakti—which was the first of the five poll guarantees of the Congress government to be rolled out—completes a month. From the day of its launch, SRTC's four road corporations—the Karnataka State Road Corporation (KSRTC), the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), the Northwest Karnataka Road Transport Corporation (NWKRTC) and the Kalyan Karnataka Road Transport Corporation (KKRTC)—have seen women commuters sign up in droves.

Not that it needs much effort, or any actual sign-up to avail. Women simply have to show any government-issued identity card to avail the zero-fare ticket. (Smart cards are scheduled to be launched shortly.)

*except the luxury and premium buses

In the first month, 16.2 crore women have travelled free on KSRTC, BMTC, NWKRTC and KKRTC buses
Ticket to Freedom: the Shakti free bus travel scheme for women in Karnataka

On the day of the launch, a photo of a woman bowing down in gratitude as she stepped into a bus went viral.

That woman was Ningavva Shiggadi, 70 years old, who took a bus from Dharwad to Savadatti in Belagavi district. “Prior to this, I had to take permission and money from my children to travel to other places. But now, with free bus rides, I do not have to depend on them any more. This has really made me happy,” said an elated Ningavva (in the photo shared below, which went viral on Twitter).

While the scheme has benefitted garment-industry workers, domestic help, pourakarmikas, vegetable vendors and women employed in malls the most—those whose salary is in the range of Rs 10,000–15,000 per month—the Shakti scheme has also given a fillip to temple tourism.

Religious destinations in Karnataka are seeing a sudden influx of women, and the female footfall in important temples like Kukke Subrahmanya, Dharmasthala, Male Mahadeshwara and Chamundi Hills has reportedly increased. 

On July 8, the transport department said that for the first time, the number of women passengers travelling free of cost in government buses in a day had crossed the 64 lakh mark. As per data released in the Assembly on 10 July, in four weeks, the total value of the tickets issued under the scheme was Rs 382 crore. The total number of riders was 31.72 crore and the average ridership of BMTC crossed 38 lakhs.

Ticket to Freedom: the Shakti free bus travel scheme for women in Karnataka
There are now 18,609 buses in which women can travel free, including: 5,958 ordinary buses, 6,308 city buses and 6,343 express buses. A comparison of costs to each of the state corporations from the fare waiver is shown in the figure above.

Gowri says in Bengaluru, women commuting daily by BMTC buses used to get a monthly bus pass for Rs 1,050, which they now save. The BMTC tickets range from Rs 5 for the first stop to Rs 25 for the first stage, which goes up with further stages added on. "Those working in the unorganised sector get paid once in three or six months, and they cannot afford to buy the monthly bus pass," Gowri says. "A pourakarmika, who has to board and get off the bus at different stops ends up paying a minimum of Rs 15 per day, and one has to make sure to have the exact change to pay the conductor, which is another worry that has been done away with now.''

Rathnamma, a 48-year-old working in a garment factory in Kenchenahalli, Bengaluru, for the last 20 years, says she is now able to buy half a litre of milk a day from her bus ticket savings. "My salary is Rs 10,500 per month, out of which I used to spend Rs 100 per day on transport alone," she says In addition to the bus ticket, since the bus stand is far, I have to take an auto-rickshaw both ways, which comes to Rs 60 a day. This month, with the money saved, I can buy some extra vegetables and milk," she adds.

Going by the most recent daily figures (below, and noting that 8 July was a Saturday, not a full weekday, this can be counted as conservative), something like 1/3 to 2/5 of passengers taking public buses are women.*

*Or at least female, since transgender and third gender persons have since protested that they are being denied the benefits due to women.

Ticket to Freedom: the Shakti free bus travel scheme for women in Karnataka

Prathiba R., president of the Karnataka Garment and Textile Workers' Union, says there are 4 lakh workers employed in various garments units, of which 3 lakh are women. "The Shakti scheme is a 100 per cent empowerment of women, as it has not only helped them to commute to work every day but also to visit their native places. For instance, those working in garment units on Tumakuru Road are from Chitradurga and visiting their native town used to cost nothing less than Rs 2,000," she adds.

The figure below shows the women passengers' monthly travel costs on different public bus networks.

5,71,023 women travelled using the Shakti scheme on June 11 alone, from 1 pm to 12 midnight. Zero-fare tickets worth Rs 1.40 crore were issued in that time. The break-up is seen in the figure below.
Ticket to Freedom: the Shakti free bus travel scheme for women in Karnataka

Private operators' opposition

After the scheme was launched, operators and staff of private bus companies protested by pasting posters on their buses which said "private buses on sale". Their contention: the scheme will reduce their revenues by 50 per cent and so sustaining the business will be impossible. Their demand is that the government either extend the benefit of free travel for women to private bus operators too and reimburse the amount to them, or reduce the taxes collected from them every quarter.

The cost of travel absorbed by the government here over the last month has certainly been substantial (see figure below).

Ticket to Freedom: the Shakti free bus travel scheme for women in Karnataka

Free(-ish) rides for females in other states

One of the earliest proponents of free bus travel for women was the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi. The AAP government in Delhi fulfilled one of its election promises with the introduction of the Pink Ticket scheme in October 2019, a few months before the 2020 Assembly elections. This made Delhi the first state in India to implement widespread free travel for women. 

In Tamil Nadu, chief minister M.K. Stalin introduced a scheme immediately after taking office in May 2021. Under this scheme, all women in the state can avail free travel on government-owned city and town buses. 

Even before Karnataka, another Congress chief minister, Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot—who also faces assembly elections later this year—offered a 50 per cent concession on fares for women across public bus routes. There was already a discount of 30 per cent given in the previous financial year.

Telugu Desam president N. Chandrababu Naidu has also announced free travel for women in APSRTC buses if his party comes to power in the Andhra Pradesh assembly elections to be held in 2024.

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