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Eye On India: A Busload of Trouble!

By Lakshmi Palecanda Email By Lakshmi Palecanda
September 2023
Eye On India: A Busload of Trouble!

The hilarious—and not-so-hilarious—side effects of a harebrained social welfare scheme unthinkingly offered by politicians hell-bent on buying votes.

In India, elections are a time for oodles of free stuff. Politicians turn into not just Santa Claus but also Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow goddess.

The most popular freebie is doubtlessly cold, hard cash. Each election cycle, the Election Commission tries to crack down on the cash-for-votes culture, but politicians invariably find a way around it. Prevented from handing out large sums, there have even been cases where a political party gave out marked twenty-rupee notes as tokens to be exchanged for a bigger amount of cash after the party won the election.

Underhanded “gifts”—from saris and steel crockery to liquor and drugs—are some of the common vote-buying bribes. However, the real deal is the plethora of sops promised to voters in the guise of welfare schemes for the poor: free education and meals for students, heavily subsidized rice and other rations, maternity assistance, and even the promise of Rs. 51,000 for the marriage of daughters of poor widows.

To be fair, some of these schemes are needed and helpful for certain segments of the population. But that doesn’t change the fact that political parties are competing with each other to provide the most outrageous welfare schemes without any regard to the loopholes in those schemes which make them ripe for abuse. And, of course, these schemes have to be underwritten, so they rob Peter to give Paul his free stuff. The state treasury goes bankrupt, and taxes are increased even as multimillionaire fat cats end up getting free laptops for their kids, and much more.

The latest such scheme, which has spiralled out of control in humorous and not-so-humorous ways, is the grandiosely-named Shakti scheme that allows all women passengers to travel for free in Karnataka’s government buses. Sure, many genuinely deserving women have hailed the scheme, and rightly so. Ningavva Shiggadi, a 70-year-old woman from a remote village in North Karnataka bowed at the footboard of the bus out of gratitude after learning that it was a free ride. For her, it meant unexpected freedom and not having to ask her family for money or permission to travel.

However, as the days went by, buses began to get filled with women of all strata of society. Never mind the Audis parked in their garages, women began to use the Shakti scheme for joy rides, or simply for the freedom it afforded them. It became increasingly more interesting when these women started traveling not for work but for fun trips. Some were fulfilling their long-denied wanderlust and traveling to tourist spots. But most were traveling to temples and places of religious significance. This was substantiated when revenues at places like Kukke Subramanya, Belur, Nanjangud, and Dharmasthala temples showed a significant increase in the number of women devotees. Unwittingly, the Karnataka government had subsidized religious tourism for women!

And since most women in India are still hesitant to travel alone, it became common for women to contact their families, neighbors, and friends, and then take off in large groups, using the state buses as their own chartered transportation service. Suddenly, hordes of women on these buses became a phenomenon! People had not seen so many women at bus stops, or even on the streets, ever before.

And things have gotten ugly! Women have been fighting to enter packed buses by climbing in through windows. Some women were even seriously injured in this process. They have taken to brawling over seats too. In one incident, a fight broke out between passengers who began to thrash each other and pull at each other’s sarees to get seats.

Women have now been forcing bus drivers to make unscheduled stops. If crossed, they become aggressive. One woman threw a stone at a bus damaging the windshield because it didn’t stop for her… because it was packed to capacity. These days, it seems lion tamers have an easier job than Karnataka bus conductors.

Meanwhile, students watched helplessly as they couldn’t get into these buses to travel to school. The same was the story for men traveling to work. Of course, social media memes started proliferating where bearded men got dressed as women just so that they could ride for free. Farcically, this situation came true when a Hindu man dressed up in a burqa for a bus ride in Dharwad. Though, as it turned out, he failed to hoodwink the conductor.

In another video, a wife is seen taunting her husband that the government is doing for her what he never did—take her places! “Nanna bittu hogbeda, chinna! Don’t leave me, darling,” the husband whines. In another, the wife says that she is off to tour Karnataka with her old school friends, while the husband wonders what is to become of him. “Eat at Indira Canteen!” she says. She is telling him to eat out, but there is a hidden meaning here too—the present ruling party is the one that had established these low-cost eateries in Karnataka under the name Indira Canteen.

Then there were the unintended social dynamics of such half-baked “free for all” welfare schemes. Men, it was reported, were getting annoyed that their wives could now just get up and go without having to ask for money or permission. They were complaining that their family life (read “home-cooked food”) has been ruined.

It’s not just the husbands who are fretting. Private bus operators and luxury bus operators have been left fuming as no one wants to pay their fares. Their vehicles can be seen standing vacant while there is no room in government buses. Even men are choosing the government buses because they are traveling with their wives and families, happy to pay just half
of the bus fare.

Meanwhile, prices of virtually everything from electricity to liquor to milk and tomatoes have hiked to two to three times of what they used to be. The government has also admitted that there is not going to be any money for infrastructure development. As for free buses for women, the men are simmering with resentment as bus fares have now been doubled for them. Along with some women, they are of the opinion that this freebie should have been issued to women who are below the poverty line, and extended to seniors and students, to be most effective in ensuring that the denizens of the state get to travel economically with freedom, safety, and dignity.

But then, that wasn’t the intent, was it?

Humorist Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana to Mysore and is still adjusting. Besides being a regular contributor at The Deccan Herald, she is a published novelist.

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