Shakti Scheme buoys Karnataka Congress, but expenditure signals bumpy ride for government

RTC employees and beneficiaries — the passengers — have their own take on the Shakti Scheme, while minister looks to refute critics.

ByBellie Thomas

Published Nov 29, 2023 | 2:00 PM Updated Nov 29, 2023 | 2:00 PM

Congress launching the Shakti scheme

Ningavva Shiggadi, the 70-year-old woman whose image — as she bowed to the footboard of a state transport bus in Dharwad in Karnataka before boarding it on a free ticket on 11 June — has become the face of the Shakti Scheme in the state.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, Home Minister G Parameshwara, and Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy felicitated her on Friday, 24 November, as the Congress government in the state celebrated the scheme as one of the milestones in the journey of women’s empowerment.

After all, this promise — of free bus rides to women from the state — was one of the five poll guarantees of the Congress before May’s Karnataka Assembly elections, which the party won in a convincing fashion to form its government.

And this specific promise appeared to have had better-than-expected results, with zero-value ticket numbers crossing 100 crore between 11 June — when the scheme debuted — and 23 November!

However, it has come with its own financial burden: The 100.47 crore free rides till 23 November cost the state a substantial ₹2,397.8 crore.

In fact, sources within the state’s road transport corporations (RTCs) told South First that it was looking like tough times — in the form of a financial crunch and an employee crisis — awaited them in the future.

Related: Shakti Scheme is a service and not for profit, says minister

Financial burden?

On the financial burden, sources from the RTCs said Chief Minister Siddaramaiah earmarked ₹2,800 crore for the Shakti Scheme in the Budget presented in July this year.

However, the scheme’s expenditure had touched ₹2,400 crore by the end of November. Going at this pace, the earmarked ₹2,800 crore would last only until December, even though there are four months left in this financial year.

“We did not expect this scheme to receive such an overwhelming response from the women of Karnataka. There is a 15-percent increase in zero-value tickets issued to women from what we had anticipated,” Karnataka Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy told South First.

“Prior to the scheme, there was a ridership of 84 lakh passengers (per day). The budget for the scheme was allocated based on that. But it has now crossed 1.1 crore, and women’s ridership is 56.23 percent,” he explained.

“Once the allocated amount is exhausted, the government will mobilise funds through reappropriation and continue the scheme until the end of the financial year. Every government does reappropriation. There would be some unspent funds in the Irrigation Department which could be diverted to the Transport Department,” the minister explained.

Reddy, in the first week of November, sought to put to rest a misinformation campaign in neighbouring Telangana targeting the Congress government’s Shakti Scheme, claiming that it hit the Karnataka exchequer hard and put RTCs into deep financial crises.

Telangana goes to polls on 30 November to elect representatives for its 119 Assembly seats.

Reddy said back then that the response to the scheme exceeded the government’s expectations, and sought to dispel the notion that it would financially affect the state RTCs once the earmarked amount was exhausted. Reappropriation was suggested as the way out back then as well.

He said that the allegations being levelled to defame the Shakti Scheme were politically motivated.

“The BJP is unable to digest the success of the flagship scheme. It is spreading misinformation about the scheme,” Reddy said.

Also read: KGF MLA criticised for driving KSRTC bus at Shakti Scheme launch

‘Employee crisis’ deep dive

On the employee crises, sources from the RTCs said the burden on them — especially the bus conductors — has only increased by leaps and bounds. There had been no fresh recruitment, and the existing bus-conductor force was being penalised mercilessly for even mistakes of the passengers.

By the end of November, nearly 350 bus conductors would have gone on suspension from all the RTCs put together, the sources pointed out.

There was growing resentment among RTC employees — especially the bus conductors, who bear the brunt while issuing zero-valued tickets to women passengers. They said some women de-board buses much before their destinations in search of seats on other buses.

TD Gudimani, a driver-cum-conductor working with the North Western Karnataka Road Transport Corporation (NWKRTC), told South First that since the Shakti Scheme came into effect, punishments for conductors and passengers are not well defined.

“In most cases, the conductor is blamed and a memo is raised against them even if the passenger makes a mistake. And the number of memos determine their suspension from work without incentives or hike in salaries, or sometimes even assignment of new routes,” Gudimani explained to South First.

“There is a seating capacity in the bus, and we also have a count for the passengers travelling standing. Some women passengers who don’t get seats in long-distance buses get down in between to board other buses with seats, and when the checking inspector inspects the bus at the next stage, he finds no passengers, but tickets have been issued and the conductor is held responsible and answerable,” he gave an example.

Bus conductor Krishnappa, working with the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), told South First that conductors were also human beings, and thus prone to committing mistakes.

“When the buses are overcrowded with women, we issue zero-value tickets to everyone. In the middle one male passenger gets a ticket and does not offer money, so sometimes we miss them. When the ticket inspectors spot such issues, the conductors face the music,” Krishnappa told South First.

PF Kolkar, a bus conductor working with the NWKRTC, told South First that since the Shakti Scheme started, there have been around 300 suspensions of conductors until October, and it would be around 350 by the end of November.

“Though the scheme is good for women passengers, it has become a burden on a majority of bus conductors who are working tirelessly. There has been no fresh recruitment of conductors. There is no hike in salary or incentives for more work since the Shakti Scheme started, and there is a scarcity of funds to repair buses,” Kolkar said.

Related: Karnataka launches Shakti Scheme, 1st of Congress’ 5 poll promises

Unpredicted events

Meanwhile, a woman traffic controller (TC), who wished to remain anonymous, told South First that buses were overcrowded even for 4.30 am trips.

“On Deepavali, a Karnataka Sarige bus coming from Mysuru to Bengaluru was so crowded that the bus driver lost control of the vehicle while he was taking a turn inside the bus stand, and the vehicle rammed into the railings built for the safety of the waiting passengers. The railings were damaged. Fortunately, there was no loss of life or limbs in the incident,” she said.

The TC also said that the seating capacity was full all the time these days. She added that bus conductors being penalised for no fault of theirs and because of women passengers deboarding midway after purchasing zero-value tickets to a particular destination was very disheartening. It was not fair to punish them, she said.

Moreover, complaints of mobile thefts, pickpockets, and gold ornament theft were also increasing, becoming a nuisance both inside buses and at bus stations where security has to be stepped up. she said.

The TC also claimed that women from other states — especially Tamil Nadu — translated their Aadhaar cards from Tamil to Kannada in cyber centres so that they too could avail of the Shakti Scheme. “We are coming across such passengers and asking them to pay for their tickets and travel,” she said.

Members of bus crews also said that the vehicles were running overcrowded most of the time, and the heavy loads were causing wear and tear — especially in those that were very old.

Kolkar explained that sometimes when the buses break down, those behind them have to share their passengers.

Also read: Karnataka’s ambitious Gruha Lakshmi Scheme hits speed breaker

Salary controversies

Meanwhile, rumours were doing rounds on social media — especially in the corners of poll-bound Telangana — that the salaries of the RTC employees were not being paid. However, RTC employees maintained that their salaries were being credited on time every month.

Minister Ramalinga Reddy refuted the allegation that the salaries of employees of the BMTC, KSRTC, NWKRTC, and KKRTC were not being paid.

He said the salaries of KSRTC employees were being disbursed on the first working day of every month, while BMTC staff got their salaries on the seventh. He added that the employees of both the NWKRTC and the KKRTC were paid on the 10th of every month.

Echoing the minister’s claims, the public relations officials of all the RTCs maintained that the salaries are being paid on time every month.

Rubbishing claims that there was some employee crisis, the transport minister also said the RTCs would soon add 5,650 buses to the existing fleet. The new buses would include both electric and diesel-powered vehicles.

“We have grants to purchase these buses and we will do it to further enhance the Shakti Scheme,” he said. Additionally, the corporations were said to be in the process of recruiting 8,000 more people.

On the employment benefits, the minister said that for the first time in the country, bus drivers were covered under a ₹1-crore insurance scheme.

“If an RTC employee loses their life while on duty, their kin would get ₹1 crore as insurance. All the employees of the RTCs have a general insurance cover of ₹3-10 lakh. Moreover, the Transport Department is also paying a stipend ranging from ₹5,000 to ₹2 lakh to the children of the employees, pursuing higher education. All students are entitled to this benefit based on their performance,” the minister said.

Asked about the irregularities allegedly committed by bus conductors in issuing zero-valued tickets, the minister said there are 1.58 lakh trips of buses running each day in Karnataka.

One or two trips would face such issues, and “we have instructed our vigilance team” to iron out the problems, he said.

Also read: Shakti Scheme hit by smear campaigns, fake news

Women weigh in

A huge chunk of women passengers availing of the scheme — especially those from economically weaker sections — work at garment factories in the suburbs and the outskirts of Bengaluru.

Kavitha, a garment worker, told South First that before the Shakti Scheme, she and her colleagues — seven of them — used to hire an auto-rickshaw and travel to and from their factory, paying ₹20 per head each way.

Now that that problem was solved, “we are going to the factory by buses free of cost”, said Kavita while waiting for a bus to head to Mysuru for the weekend to visit her relatives. She was carrying her Aadhaar card.

Madhu, a first-year MBBS student at the BGS Medical College in Uttarahalli, was also waiting for a bus. She was at the Kengeri Satellite bus stand, headed home on Magadi Road in Bengaluru — around 16 km away. Madhu would have to change three buses to get to her destination.

“Ever since the Shakti Scheme started, the buses have become overcrowded. Kengeri is a hub of colleges, and a lot of students commute by bus. Sometimes there are quarrels between women passengers and men inside the buses for seats. On one instance, the driver took the bus to a police station,” said Madhu.

“More buses have to be introduced for this problem to be solved,” she added.

Another medical student, Karuna, said she was not impressed with the safety inside the buses.

“The quality of travel should improve. This scheme has made the buses overcrowded. Now, besides protecting ourselves from being crushed inside the bus, we have to take care of our belongings,” she told South First.

Harshita M, a BCom final-year student at the Seshadripuram College, said she wanted only people from poor economic backgrounds — not just women but also men — to be included in the scheme.

“It should not be made free for all women. Most of them are misusing it. Students like us can avail a pass from the transport corporation. Students from economically weaker sections can avail of free bus passes. Likewise, women from economically weaker sections, like garment workers, can show their labour ID cards and avail of free bus passes,” she noted.

“Senior citizens — both men and women — should be allowed to travel in buses for free. For others, including women, it should not be free rides. If the government is generous, it can reduce the fares or make people travel on half-fares, but not free of cost,” said Harshita. She claimed this would streamline the scheme.

Harshita’s classmates Aishwarya and Latha echoed her sentiments and said that Harshita’s suggestion would also decongest crowded buses.

Riya Agarwal, pursuing a BSc in Psychology at the Bengaluru-based Christ College, told South First that the Shakti Scheme should not have been gender-based. “It should have been economy-based,” she said.

Meanwhile, Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike (BBPV) co-founder Shaheen Shasa told South First that one negative and regrettable aspect of the scheme was that it should have been extended to even men belonging to the low-income working-class category and also for senior citizens.

She said if not these, the government should at least consider reducing the fares for the elderly.

“The government had not expected that his scheme would be utilised by these many women. It should increase the budget allocated to this scheme by re-appropriating funds meant for useless projects like tunnelling and building flyovers,” said Shaheen.

“These funds can also be used for increasing the number of buses in the fleet and facilitate efficient last mile connectivity, so that no woman is left out,” she told South First.

Shasa added that now that the government had realised that it had empowered the womenfolk, it should actually get rid of the Shakti ID cards for women and include the migrant woman population from other states, as they were very few in number and would not add much to the load.