A clear objective needs to be set, and the scheme must be monitored to study whether it is achieving its intended impact.

The Shakti scheme, implemented by the Siddaramaiah-led Karnataka government, has garnered attention due to its provision of free ridership for women on buses operated by various government agencies. While similar schemes have been introduced by other state governments in the past, a comprehensive evaluation of the success of these schemes will take a few years as most of them are recent initiatives.

As of now, supporters point to increased women ridership, while critics cite long-term financial strain on the already punctured state transport undertakings. This article is an attempt to lay the framework for a continuous assessment of the evaluation of public policy behind the schemes such as Shakti.

The objectives

The objectives of the scheme need to be understood to evaluate its impact and sustainability. One objective could be to increase women’s ridership, promoting a right-based approach that aims to enhance women’s access to public transportation and address gender disparities.

Another objective could be to improve the socio-economic background of women, aligning with a broader development agenda.

Studies indicate that both objectives should be treated equally to ensure the scheme’s sustainability and contribute to the socio-economic development of women, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Effective interdepartmental coordination and engaging relevant stakeholders, including market players, are crucial for achieving these objectives. Without such collaboration, the scheme may have good intentions but limited long-term outcomes.

Priority of free ridership

Studies indicate that the ridership patterns among women in public transportation is influenced by various factors and fares are not the sole determinant. These factors include inadequate fleet availability, inconsistent frequency of services, limited first- and last-mile connectivity, concerns about safety and security both on board and in the surrounding neighbourhoods, among others.

In relation to these factors, it is pertinent to ask what degree and rank did fares take that the government prioritised providing the free service, and whether the authorities identified those reasons in the local context to prioritise them to address them in a composite manner.

The effectiveness of the scheme and its ability to attract more women riders may depend on how well all other factors are addressed and improved. Merely offering free ridership may not be sufficient to overcome the complex challenges faced by women in utilising public transport.

Feeder services

In the Indian context, bus ridership typically serves as a medium of transportation between the origin and destination, rather than providing end-to-end connectivity. Feeder services play a crucial role in providing connectivity. However, feeder services are unauthorised or inadequate in most parts of India.

The purpose of the scheme can be defeated if the feeder services are not augmented to reflect the increase in demand with the ridership in the buses. The government should recognise and address the importance of feeder systems. These systems should be integrated into the larger public transport network, working in tandem with buses to meet the growing demand and facilitate seamless connectivity for passengers.

Reflection and experience

If the objective is also to reduce private vehicles on the road, a poorly-designed scheme may inadvertently lead to increased traffic congestion.

Poor implementation can lead to scenarios where the more vocal middle class dominates public transport, potentially marginalising the poorer sections of urban centres. Alternatively, the middle class may continue relying on their private vehicles. Both scenarios can occur if there is a failure to augment the fleet size and provide quality services to meet the increased commuter demand. Information deficit on the availability of the buses, lack of end-to-end connectivity, and the erratic nature of the operations will add to the resentment and rejection of the services.

Externalities

With the Shakti scheme defining the free ridership within 20 km, it can inadvertently put pressure on the urban infrastructure such as housing for the poor in the long run if the scheme continues for a while. The system needs to be ready for such evolving scenarios. At the same time, it doesn’t help that majority of the women in the informal sector switch jobs frequently. This situation must be monitored continuously.

Another impact could be on the private bus operators and the ensuing Gross Cost Contract (GCC). While free ridership is available in State Transport Undertaking (STUs), this can take away the already depleted ridership from the private bus operators thus making their operations less viable. Total expenses in transportation would increase as a result of the scheme which in turn will have a huge impact on the GCC (most of the states follow this scheme) of the private operators with the STUs and the city municipal corporation managed Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs). This will eventually hit the fleet size and spread of the bus networks.

Private bus operators have served as valuable partners by providing additional capacity and coverage, and complementing the services provided by government-run transport corporations. Without fare income, private bus operators may struggle to sustain their operations, leading to potential service reductions, route cancellations, or even business closures. In the long run, a reduction in their involvement can result in reduced options and capacity for commuters, potentially leading to overcrowding, longer wait times, and decreased overall efficiency.

Protocols and awareness

Research has highlighted that sexual harassment, coupled with the absence of institutional mechanisms to address such incidents, have resulted in women avoiding the use of public transport (Ceccato et al). It is crucial to establish protocols and enhance awareness among passengers to instil confidence in their safety. Additionally, ensuring the presence of women employees within the transport crew is essential. Establishing a gender advisory committee at the management level can further support the implementation of these protocols and initiatives. These measures collectively contribute to creating a safer environment and fostering trust among women passengers when utilising public transport.

Policy monitoring and evaluation

Public policy should be evaluated based on its potential outcomes rather than intentions. It should be systematically monitored and assessed for its intended effects. To realise the desired outcomes of initiatives such as free ridership schemes, it is crucial to establish a solid foundation that extends beyond free rides. Merely providing free ridership does not sufficiently address broader goals such as social mobility, access to healthcare, education, livelihood, and labour participation. Therefore, a comprehensive approach is essential to achieve the full potential of these initiatives and their impact on society.

This article was first published in Deccan Herald.

(D Dhanuraj is Chairman, and Nissy Solomon is Honorary Trustee (Research & Programs), Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi)

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

Chairman at Centre for Public Policy Research

Dr Dhanuraj is the Chairman of CPPR. His core areas of expertise are in international relations, urbanisation, urban transport & infrastructure, education, health, livelihood, law, and election analysis. He can be contacted by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @dhanuraj.

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Nissy Solomon is Hon. Trustee (Research & Programs) at CPPR. She has a background in Economics with a master’s degree in Public Policy from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. After graduation and prior to her venture into the public policy domain, she worked as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analyst with Nokia-Heremaps. Her postgraduate research explored the interface of GIS in Indian healthcare planning. She is broadly interested in Public Policy, Economic Development and Spatial Analysis for policymaking.

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