Free bus rides vs fancy bullet trains: What kind of development must India have

India can be forced to shine but whether the people of India will shine remains the question, and that remains the ground on which the Congress is making huge strides in its fight against the BJP in this election.

Jagdish Rattanani May 25, 2024
Representational Photo

With the heat picking up in India's election season, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has released a series of interviews to his chosen media houses, mostly in controlled environments. But even in these safe spaces, some unscripted words appear to have escaped, revealing an alarming lack of understanding of and engagement with some of the burning issues facing the nation today. 

For example, take the Prime Minister’s comments on the Shakti scheme of Karnataka, which, since it was introduced in June last year, has enabled almost 2 billion women and girls to travel on state transport buses at zero cost, with some 6.5 million using the scheme daily. By all accounts emerging from the state, the scheme has had dramatic effects that add up to one simple and clear message – the women feel free. They are travelling all over. This is the only welfare scheme that is overused, which is not surprising since the scheme is simple, clear, and usable: show a resident card and travel.

Responding to this scheme in one interview, Modi offered the simplistic and particularly unenlightened analysis that free bus travel to women offered across the State of Karnataka by the Congress government would translate to less usage for the newly-minted metro services, and so the metro will run at a loss and no one would build metro services in the country. This very limited and narrow view completely flies in the face of any understanding of how welfare schemes work, how they can empower and become a force for liberation and can open new opportunities for the weaker sections of society, and particularly girls and women as in the case of Karnataka. 

Narrow vision of development

It is amazing that after more than two decades in high office collectively, in the State of Gujarat as Chief Minister and now as Prime Minister, Modi appears not sensitised to the basics of development, or these are lessons he has heard and not paid heed to, or in this bitter election season, he is blinded in his hatred for the Congress which brought the Karnataka scheme. 

The Government of India, even under the BJP government, runs a plethora of welfare schemes and if the same thinking were to be applied, then conceptually this has to be a government that rejects all welfare, and not just free transport in Karnataka, which actually is an ingenious way of giving freedom to women and is also a scheme in place in the non-BJP-ruled States of Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Punjab.

It will take time for the full impact of the Shakti scheme to flow and be documented. But the idea that the scheme takes ridership away from the metro beats all logic. At its core, the Prime Minister is saying this: get the poor to pay and make them ride the metro lines, where fares are much higher in general so that the metro becomes viable and investment is recouped, and thus development is taken to have occurred. This is a frightfully narrow vision of what development means for the government led by him, and without probably knowing it, the Prime Minister has accepted the charge of the Congress party that this is a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. 

The lens with which the entire way of working is the lens of the financer, not the lens of the women and girls who are travelling where they were not earlier. It harks back to Modi’s equally remarkable lack of understanding shown before he became the Prime Minister when he said at a public meeting in Mumbai that the bullet train was meant to show the world that India is developed, even if no one would use it. Even if that could be dismissed as an immature comment in the heat of the moment, just as he was preparing to lead the campaign, the remarks now on the Shakti scheme (as also his remarks on another question on the rise in inequality in India) show some fundamental problems in the very idea and understanding of issues of growth and development.

The obvious questions that arise in the case of the Karnataka scheme are simple ones, like a) Why were the women not travelling the way they are now?  b) What does this huge growth in travel mean for the grassroots economy? c) What do the complaints being heard now, that buses are crowded, and not often on time, mean for a grassroots demand for a higher quality of public service, d) how will the government respond to this, and will it be forced to invest more in public transport, e) What will be the spinoff effects on the women labour force participation and the economy as a whole? f) Can you have a right to work but not the right to get to work by safe and decent travel to work that job?  These and a host of other questions beckon as the scheme plays out, but none of these are on the radar of the Prime Minister and his flatline counter on helping metros take off, even if this means by implication keeping women from travelling the way they are now.

Luxembourg's example

It was almost four years ago that Luxemburg, one of the richest economies in Europe, declared all travel to be free for all people, not just residents. Here is François Bausch of The Greens, Luxembourg’s former Deputy Prime Minister, as quoted by EuroNews: "(The scheme) is a considerable cost, but… it's paid by all taxpayers … There's more equity there because obviously those who pay little taxes pay nothing or very little in this system. And those who pay more taxes… have a price tag that may be a little bit higher.” The spinoffs: “Investment in the country’s transport system has not slowed. The new tram system is regular and reliable, unhindered by traffic. The country has made record investments in improving its rail network.”

In the end, the question before the nation is not on whether it needs development but what kind of development must India have. The comments of PM Modi seem to suggest that the bug of “India Shining” is embedded deep within. India can be forced to shine but whether the people of India will shine remains the question, and that remains the ground on which the Congress is making huge strides in its fight against the BJP in this election.

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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