Shakti gladdens hearts but issues dogging scheme sadden women

Akkayyamma and her 29-year-old daughter Pavithra from Nippani in Belagavi district in North Karnataka travelled approximately 600 km to Kukke Subrahmanya temple in Dakshina Kannada district in the south. They made the journey to perform a special ritual recommended by an astrologer for their family at this temple. But thanks to the Karnataka government’s Shakti scheme that provides free travel for women on State-run buses, they travelled for free.

Thousands of women have been thronging various temples and tourism destinations across Karnataka using the free bus scheme, which turns one on June 11. Akkayyamma, who works as a domestic help in her home town, shared her story, “I come from a poor family with three children. I lost my husband a few years ago. The whole family’s burden is on me now. I’ve been searching for a groom for my elder daughter for the past four years without any success. An astrologer advised us to perform a ritual here.”

Akkayyamma said she had been wanting to visit this temple for the past three years, but couldn’t afford to travel such a long distance. “When the government announced free bus travel for women, I decided to bring my daughter here. After saving some money for accommodation and food, we were able to travel here for free.”

A group of 10 women from Kalaburagi district in North Karnataka, which is visiting various temples in the coastal and South Karnataka regions for the first time, was at the renowned temple town of Dharmasthala in Dakshina Kannada district. “If it weren’t for the Shakti scheme, we would never have been able to visit a distant pilgrimage centre like Dharmasthala,” said Kamala Imdapur, one of the group members.

A KSRTC conductor verifying ID cards of women passengers in a bus at the temple town of Dharmasthala in Dakshina Kannada district.

A KSRTC conductor verifying ID cards of women passengers in a bus at the temple town of Dharmasthala in Dakshina Kannada district.
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The team, accompanied by two men, had visited several prominent temples, including Sringeri Sharadamba temple, Udupi Krishna temple, Annapoorneshwari temple at Horanadu, and Kollur Mookambika temple, before arriving at Dharmasthala. They plan to conclude their journey at Kukke Subrahmanya temple before returning to Kalaburagi.

Kamala said, “On this trip, we saved approximately ₹20,000 to ₹30,000 on bus fares for the entire group, which allowed us to stay in good hotels. If we had to pay for the bus tickets, we would have had to rely on cheaper accommodation. The free bus scheme has helped us visit many temples and save money as well.”

All about Shakti scheme

Launched: June 11 , 2023

Aim of the scheme: To boost women’s work participation and promote public transportation in Karnataka

Genesis of the scheme: The Congress announced the scheme in its 2023 Assembly election manifesto as one of its five guarantees

Contours of the scheme: It allows women and transgender persons to travel for free on non-premium State-run buses across the State

Number of women passengers who travelled from June 11, 2023, to June 4, 2024: 221.92 crore

Ticket value of women passengers travelled: ₹5,402.97 crore

During the conversation with Kamala, another group member, Charulatha Gouda Patil, intervened and said, “It wasn’t just accommodation, food was also sorted since all the temples we visited provided Anna Prasada (free meals). Everything is free now.”

Increase in temple revenue

An official at Kukke Subrahmanya temple told The Hindu that daily footfall had nearly tripled to over 40,000 since the Shakti scheme’s launch a year ago. “Kukke Subrahmanya temple, the richest in the State, earned ₹146 crore in 2023-24 as against ₹123 crore in the previous fiscal year, marking an 18% revenue increase. Although this temple was already among the most visited, we can attribute part of the rise in both revenue and footfall to the Shakti scheme.”

However, while lakhs of people from other North Karnataka districts are visiting Dakshina Kannada, the Shakti scheme is not significantly benefiting the local residents due to the monopoly of private bus operators, who dominate the well-connected routes within the district. Several villages lack proper bus connectivity.

Poor rural connectivity 

At Kayarthadka, which is 10 km away from Dharmasthala, residents expressed their frustration when The Hindu visited the village. Paul Hosie, a resident, said, “There is no proper bus service to this village. Only two buses come in the morning and two in the evening. To catch a bus, we have to travel 5 km to the main road by hiring an auto or by walking.”

Suma J., another resident, said, “Though hundreds of buses come from various districts across Karnataka to nearby Dharmasthala, it’s ironic that we lack adequate bus service. The free bus scheme is useless for us. If I want to go to Mangaluru, I depend on private buses because they are punctual and plentiful.”

Not just in Dakshina Kannada and the adjoining Udupi districts where the scheme has not helped women due to a lack of government buses and monopoly of private buses, in Malnad districts such as Kodagu, Shivamogga, and Chikkamagaluru there are very few government buses.

In the hilly district of Kodagu, most people going to work, schools, and colleges from their villages to nearby towns have to take private buses. Ponnamma Biddappa, a college student from Napoklu, said there are very few government buses from her home to Madikeri, where she goes to college. “My friends and I travel at least 20 km from Napoklu to Madikeri by a private bus, which charges a nominal fare. With very few government buses available, we don’t benefit from the free bus scheme.”

Hema Naik, an employee in a cooperative bank in Mudigere in Chikkamagaluru district who travels daily from Banakal, her home town, too echoed similar views: “Private buses offer good connectivity, are punctual, and they charge a little more than government buses. However, they are good. While the rest of the State enjoys the benefits of free travel on road transport corporation (RTC) buses, we miss out and continue using private buses due to the shortage of government buses.”

In Shivamogga too, the Shakti scheme is not advantageous for girls and women in areas without the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KRSTC) services. Sahakara Sarige, an organisation operating on a cooperative model, ceased operations due to losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. It previously provided services in rural areas across the district. As a result, many villages now lack bus facility.

Hundreds of women from villages in Karuru and Barangi hoblis in Sagar taluk of Shivamogga district rely on private buses to commute to Sagar. Numerous students use private buses to reach their schools and colleges, missing out on the free bus service as KSRTC buses do not serve those routes. Lavanya Rao from Barangi said, “We travel to Sagar by private buses. Many students depend on them to reach college. The government should deploy KSRTC buses to villages to ensure we can avail of these benefits.”

Garment workers to IT employees

On the contrary, in the Old Mysore region of the State, the Shakti scheme is benefiting women due to robust government bus connectivity. Bengaluru city, Bengaluru Rural district, Mysuru, Mandya, Chamarajanagar, Hassan, Tumakuru, Kolar, and other districts boast better city and rural bus services. While there are a few private operators, most women passengers rely on government buses.

A large number of women, mostly those working in garment factories, waiting at a BMTC bus stand on Mysuru Road in Bengaluru.

A large number of women, mostly those working in garment factories, waiting at a BMTC bus stand on Mysuru Road in Bengaluru.
| Photo Credit:

Rani H.K., a garment worker residing near Pipeline Road at Bagalagunte in North Bengaluru, commutes 5 km daily to Peenya, where she works in a garment factory. “Earlier, I used to travel in a tempo. Now, with the free bus service available, I commute for free, saving thousands of rupees every month,” she said, adding that she is utilising the money thus saved for her son’s education, nurturing her dream of seeing him become a doctor.

Sangeetha Bhat, an IT employee residing at BTM Layout in south Bengaluru, commutes daily to her office at Electronics City using the free bus service. “Despite the crowd, the free bus scheme is proving to be highly beneficial for us. During my travels, I’ve noticed many underprivileged people also benefiting from it. However, my only concern is the limited number of buses. The government should consider expanding the fleet,” she added.

Empowered travel helps business

In North Karnataka, where bus facilities are severely limited and there are no private bus operators, the scheme enables women to travel beyond their districts to temples and tourism destinations. However, the lack of enough buses remains a significant concern.

Nagaveni M., a homemaker from Basavanakatti in Haveri district, fulfilled her dream of visiting the temple town of Saundatti in Belagavi district to pay homage to Saundatti Yellamma. This journey had been a cherished aspiration for her over the past five years. “Accompanied by my husband and our two children, we visited the temple as I had been fervently praying for my child’s health issues since birth. Utilising the free bus scheme for our travel was a blessing, as it enabled us to save some money,” she said.

However, Nagaveni said that she had to endure a long wait for a bus back to Haveri, as there were very few buses available, and they were also overcrowded. “The free travel experience wasn’t pleasant though as the bus was very crowded. The government should consider providing more buses for better comfort. I had to stand with my one-year-old baby for over an hour in the crowded bus,” she said.

Quasim Nadaf, a flower grower from Saundatti, remarked, “The scheme has boosted business for local shops. Our orders for puja flowers such as marigold have doubled within a year. Moreover, it has bolstered the income of local auto and taxi drivers as women, often visiting in groups, also explore nearby tourism spots such as Navilu Teertha dam.”

An official from the temple committee said, “Saundatti is an Endowment Department-administered temple with the highest footfall. On average, 3 crore pilgrims visit here annually. This number stood at around 1.2 crore by the end of 2022. Although we lack day-to-day figures, I estimate the increase to be around two to three times when compared to last year.”

Women at the KSRTC bus stand at the temple town of Dharmasthala in Dakshina Kannada district.

Women at the KSRTC bus stand at the temple town of Dharmasthala in Dakshina Kannada district.
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Shakti scheme boosts GST; 2,300 buses added: Minister

According to a recent study conducted by the State-run Fiscal Policy Institute, the Shakti scheme is playing a role in boosting Karnataka’s GST collection and enhancing female participation in the labour force.

Since the launch of the scheme in June last year until March this year, Karnataka’s GST collection has reportedly increased by ₹309.64 crore. This increase is attributed to the savings women are making through the scheme, which are being redirected towards consumption activities, consequently generating revenue for the government, as outlined in the study.

However, there are complaints regarding the shortage of buses and overcrowding — issues that the government is yet to address. Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy The Hindu: “The scheme has been remarkably successful over the past year. While it is available to all women, its primary goal is to enhance female participation in the workforce, with a focus on benefiting poor and daily wage earners, a goal we have achieved.”

Addressing concerns about the lack of enough buses and connectivity, Mr. Reddy said, “Over the past year, we have significantly expanded our bus fleet. We have introduced 2,300 new buses across all four transport corporations since the inception of the free bus scheme. Additionally, we plan to further expand the fleet shortly to ensure that everyone can benefit from the scheme and also to improve connectivity.”

(With inputs from Rishikesh Bahadur Desai)

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