Congress' Shakti scheme of free bus ride for women has already put the State Transport Corporation under tremendous strain (Pic. Courtesy IANS)
Bengaluru: The ‘five freebies’, including “200 units of free supply of electricity to the poor” that propelled the Congress party led by Siddaramaiah to power in Karnataka, have begun to unravel themselves one by one, as a steep hike in power tariff for the commercial sector led to a state-wide “industrial bandh” by the chambers of commerce to protest against the state government.
Barring the Bengaluru-based namby-pamby Federation of Karnataka Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FKCCI), which heeded the chief minister’s appeal to give him time to “set things right” and decided not to participate in the bandh, a large number of small and big industries, hotels, shops and other commercial establishments downed their shutters and held protest marches in Belgaum, Hubballi and other major cities, demanding that the power tariff hike be withdrawn.
Even before the much-publicised ‘Gruha Jyothi’ free power supply scheme has taken off, the Siddaramaiah government quietly notified a general tariff increase of Rs 2.95 per unit.
Putting blame on the BJP
As the move was sharply criticised, Siddaramaiah and his ministerial colleagues put the blame squarely on the previous BJP-led government saying that the Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission’s recommendation had come before the Congress party assumed power. “It is the BJP which was responsible for this increase and once the KERC approved the hike, we could not interfere with its decision as it is a statutory body,” Energy Minister KJ George claimed.
A senior BJP leader pointed out that, “As a matter of fact, KERC is a semi-autonomous body under the state government, headed by a retired IAS officer and with two other members also appointed by the government. Since any increase in power tariff has to be approved by the State Cabinet, the Siddaramaiah government could have withheld its consent if it was so concerned about the poor.”
Rubbing salt in the wound, the Siddaramaiah government also unilaterally and whimsically removed the lower slabs of electricity rates for crores of domestic consumers and put the base price at a steep Rs 7 per unit. The increase was notified with retrospective effect from April 1, 2023. As people began to get the “shock” of electricity bills with astronomical increase and there was a huge public uproar, Siddaramaiah and deputy chief minister DK Shivakumar claimed that “it was a one-time problem” as the bills included “two months’ arrears” and the burden would come down from the next month.
Free electricity turns a ‘dhokha’
It is apparent that the Congress is no mood to fully honour its pre-election promise of “200 units of electricity to every household in the state” as it has already introduced a few “caveats” which were never mentioned during the election campaign or in the Congress party’s advertisements and its election manifesto.
Even before the scheme is operationalised, the government has said that those who consume “even one unit more than 200 units” will be excluded from the scheme and the beneficiaries would be identified based “on their last 12 months’ average consumption of power with an addition of 10 per cent.” In effect, if a poor family was limiting its consumption to 110 units per month, it will get exemption from payment only for 121 units and not 200 units as repeatedly claimed earlier.
Another promise of the Siddaramaiah government to provide “10 kg of rice per head per month free of cost” to every family has hit a roadblock as the government is panicking over the availability and enormous cost involved in supplying around 2.28 lakh tonnes of rice every month. As Siddaramaiah’s appeal to the Centre, which is already supplying 5 kg of rice or wheat every month free to 80 crore people across the country, to give Karnataka additional rice “on a payment basis” has been ignored, he and his colleagues have started accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “trying to sabotage our scheme” and deny rice to the poor.
Janata Dal (Secular) leader and former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy sharply attacked the Congress for blaming the Centre and the Prime Minister. “Siddaramaiah is trying to hoodwink the people by making the Centre a scapegoat for his party’s foolish and irrational decision taken without application of mind. The Congress should have made preparations for the procurement of rice when they made a promise to the people….Why should the Centre supply the rice to meet the Congress party’s guarantee?” he asked.
The “Shakti’ scheme, free bus ride for women all over the state, is the only one to be rolled out so far and the state transport corporation has come under enormous strain as women have begun flocking the buses in thousands and travelling to “pilgrimage centres” with full gusto. The KSRTC, the state transport organisation, is counting a loss of over Rs 20 crore in just two weeks and transport minister Ramalinga Reddy’s appeal to women “’not to rush all at the same time” and create jams everywhere has fallen on deaf years.
With two of the five guarantees, free electricity and rice supply caught in the quagmire, the state government is not even talking about the other two promises: Rs 2,000 ‘allowance’ to every woman head of the family and doles to the unemployed youth. As the state would be staring at a huge burden of around Rs 70,000 crore or more annually to implement these five freebies, people will be keenly watching Siddaramaiah’s Budget to be presented in the state assembly in the first week of July to know as to how he would mobilise the required funds.