Sixty-year-old Shantamma Mulage, a resident of Hajnal village in Bidar, cannot wait for 11 June to arrive.
Starting that day, she won’t have to pay for bus tickets anymore, with the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government rolling out the Shakti scheme that guarantees free bus rides for women.
Shantamma Mulage, the district president for the Farmer Women’s Wing in Bidar, spends around ₹400 per month on bus tickets. Mulage takes the ‘kempu‘ (red) bus of KSRTC to go to Tehsildar office in Bhalki at least three to four times a month.
So, what does she intend to do with the money she would now save?
“With the money I save, I would buy milk for my family or maybe a saree for myself,” Shantamma told South First, excited at the thought.
“Since I just became a senior citizen, I get a concession and the ticket fare is ₹28 to ₹30 — one way. I end up spending Rs 60 for the bus fare. But regular ticket fare is ₹42, so earlier, I would end up spending ₹84 for the bus ticket and if I bought a water bottle or something, the total cost would be ₹100,” she said.
For Vaishali S Kammar, a representative of Stree Jagruti Samiti and the Domestic Workers Rights Union (DWRU) in Belagavi, free bus travel means better educational coaching for her child.
Women, mostly domestic helps, approach Vaishali Kammar every day for help with their rations cards, income certificates, caste certificates, for their children’s scholarships, pensions, etc.
She has to go to the taluk office, tehsildar office, Nemmadi Kendra, all at Belagavi city some 17 km away from her village. Government buses are her trusted mode of transport.
Vaishali Kammar has a travel card which she uses to get a meagre discount on her ticket fare, but it needs to be recharged regularly.
“I use somewhere between ₹100 to ₹150 per day for my commute to different offices. And monthly I end up spending around ₹2,000 on bus travel,” Vaishali told South First.
“My travel card still has ₹250 and I’m quickly using it up and finishing it off by 11 June and won’t be recharging the card from the next time. I never get to save money, but if I could save that ₹2,000 from the free bus ride, then it would go for some family expenses like my children’s tuitions,” Vaishali added.
Socio-political, economic outcome vs financial costs
While debates rage on about the financial costs of implementing the five welfare schemes announced by Congress government, very little is spoken of the socio-political and economic outcomes of such schemes.
The free bus rides for all women, including sexual minorities, promise has in particular been hailed by civil society groups and citizens’ rights activists.
Though there are debates over the so-called “freebie culture” and the Congress using its promises to win elections, activists see the scheme offering free bus rides to women and transgender women, as a masterstroke.
They say this scheme would be especially empowering for women in terms of participation not only in the workforce, but also in higher education and other fields.
As South First learnt from the women we spoke to, the scheme could help not just them, but also assist their next generation.
Shaheen Shasa, founder of Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike (BBPV), told South First that the scheme opens up options for women when it comes to choosing their workplace or an educational institution.
“Our studies have revealed that a large number of women — especially from the working class — can afford only ₹10-20 per day for their commute to work, or else it simply does not work out for them.
“For such women, free rides on government buses will be a boon, and open up more options for them to work for higher salaries and travel to places where they are paid more,” she pointed out.
Shasa noted that many women who were hitherto walking or using other modes of transport such as shared autos, would now be able use buses, making their travel easier.
The move would also have a significant impact on household incomes among the poor, the activists said.
For young women in the early years of their careers, or even girl students, the scheme would come as a big relief.
“If they are able to save, say, ₹1,000 per month, they can spend it on more food, or to slightly improve their house, or buy more books, or get some extra tuitions or learning opportunities, and so on. This will ease their lives tremendously and enable them to reach out to more opportunities,” Shasa added.
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Srinivas Alavilli, cofounder of Citizens for Bengaluru, told South First that the move will help empower women to even the fight battles within their homes.
“Most of the time, the issues around women have to do with their own families, who are often the biggest inhibitors of a woman’s progress for any number of reasons — social make-up, role of women, patriarchy, misogyny. All these are pretty much prevalent in society even today,” Alavilli said.
“Many studies in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi have shown that women have been indeed been empowered with free transport on government buses,” he added.
Schemes similar to Shakti have been implemented in New Delhi by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, and in Tamil Nadu by the DMK government.
The number for women’s participation in the workforce is low in Karnataka, as is the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) among women, especially in higher studies.
“Free travel opens up the opportunities. A woman would want to go to college, and the parents would say, ‘That college is very far, and travel will cost so much money, why don’t you do something online?’, or simply ask them to stay at home.
“The free bus travel changes the culture completely. It is the same with jobs. Husbands can no longer tell wives that the cost of the commute is not worth the salary. She also does not have to depend on him to get dropped or picked up,” Alavilli explained.
Impact in rural areas
While the Shakti scheme will almost certainly be a hit in Karnataka’s cities, it will have a great impact in the rural pockets too, activists asserted.
Abhay Kumar of the Grameena Koolikaarmikara Sanghatane (GRAKOOS) said among the several hindrances that rural women have to struggle with, mobility/transport perhaps the most significant.
“This move by the newly-elected state government will certainly improve women’s participation in the social, economic and political activities in the state,” Abhay Kumar told South First.
“It will have a bigger impact in the rural areas and smaller towns, especially as government colleges and other educational opportunities are not accessible to everyone,” said Srinivas Alavilli.
Just a “freebie”?
While some people have described the scheme as a freebie and an election gimmick, activists feel that it is a well-thought-out plan which would get results in the long term.
“We have been demanding free bus rides for not only women and transgenders, but also for students and senior citizens from a long time,” advocate and citizen activist Vinay Sreenivas told South First.
“The government’s decision to implement free fares for women, including students and the transgender community will enable more women and the transgender persons to access their right to education, right to livelihoods, and increase their participation in the economy.
“They will now also have greater choice in accessing education and jobs, as they need not be constrained by the expense on travel. As is evidenced by the Tamil Nadu’s State Planning Commission’s report, this scheme will enable households from marginalised communities to save more, enabling them to spend the savings on pressing needs like food and education,” Sreenivas added.
What did TN Planning Commission report find?
According to the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission report, the free bus ride scheme — called the Zero-Ticket Bus Travel (ZTBT) scheme — has immensely benefited women passengers across the state in multiple ways.
The report highlights several benefits that accrued to women, including:
- Leaving them a higher disposable income;
- Enabling higher work participation;
- Reducing dependence on family members for their mobility;
- Fostering new opportunities for social networks and learning.
According to the report, around 50 percent of women travelers are aged over 40 years, suggesting its importance to the lives of older women in Tamil Nadu.
In addition, more than 80 percent of the women users were found to be earning less than ₹12,000 a month. The scheme was thus a big plus for women in low-income categories compared to those from well-to-do households.
And, on average, women were found to be saving about ₹888 every month through the ZTBT scheme. Savings across different occupational categories of women passengers ranged from ₹756 to ₹1,012 per month.
Coming to the Delhi model, former deputy chief Minister Manish Sisodia, while presenting a status report of the Outcome Budget for 2021-22 in the Delhi Legislative Assembly, stated that more than three crore women availed the facility of free travel on public transport buses in Delhi.
The free bus-ride scheme for women was launched by the AAP government in the national capital in 2019. The Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System (DIMTS) both combined have a fleet strength of 6,900 buses in Delhi.