Private buses, autos and taxis were off the road in Bengaluru for half a day on Monday to protest against the State government’s Shakti scheme which allows women to travel free in city and roadways buses. The strike was called off in the course of the day, after the government agreed to some of the protesters’ demands. These included creating a welfare board for drivers and a government working on a ride-hailing app that would leave them with a larger share of earnings, compared to the existing Ola-Uber apps. The Shakti scheme, however, continues.
The strike has proved that the policy is a success. It seems that the less well-to-do working women have shifted to using buses and stopped using autos and cabs — which marks a big step towards energy-efficient mobility. The scheme is working as an income saver for women in inflationary times. It has made bus travel, particularly in the evening and night, congenial and safe for women. Girls from poor backgrounds may not forgo the option of joining a good school or college that is distant, merely because of the travel cost. These spin-offs give rise to a larger issue in the ‘freebies’ debate — that these may generate gains over time that are not appreciated. In public finance terms, the revenue lost by Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation can be offset by savings in fuel use, reduced pollution and lower congestion. The State is contributing to a lower fuel bill, overall. The scheme may lift women’s educational status and prospects.
BMTC can monetise this subsidy by earning carbon credits for promoting public transport. The city must enforce a congestion tax on SUVs when they enter core zones and use the proceeds to fund BMTC and perhaps the auto drivers. To make this scheme realise its potential, the BMTC should run more buses.