This article was written by Shruti Kapoor, founder of Sayfty, an NGO focussed on preventing gender based violence. For more like this, see our gender equality newsfeed.
Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal announced 3 June that his government is proposing to make metro and bus travel free for women riders in the national capital. Kejriwal further added “ The Government will bear their travel expenses” and the proposal will be implemented within 2-3 months.
With the elections for the State Legislative scheduled to take place early next year, the question people are asking is, is a free rides for votes move or an unmitigated brilliant policy move to address women’s safety in the nation’s capital?
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If implemented, the new policy will cost $170 million annually. It will add 100,000 riders to the already 2.5 million riders daily. Furthermore, to increase the safety of women, the government has passed a tender to install 150.000 CCTV cameras across the city.
Taking the bus to work
Those in favor of it, like Aam Admi Party’s leader Atishi Marlena, argues that free public transportation will make travel safer for women. 33% of the metro riders are women. If women are provided free public transportation, it will allow women from all sections of the society (especially those that cannot afford the recent metro fare hike) to reclaim public spaces, thereby making them safer.
On the other hand feminist and activist Japleen Pasricha tweeted “As a woman and a feminist activist who has been molested and very recently stalked in the Delhi Metro, I don’t think this “metro free for women” is a great idea! Free’ doesn’t solve the safety issues”.
If implemented, I believe this policy could lead to an increased Women’s Labour Force Participation Rate: In recent times, India’s female labour force participation rate at 24% is the second-lowest in South Asia.
For business and pleasure
Women often turn down employment opportunities further away from home for lower paying jobs because public transportation is either unreliable or unaffordable. Free public transportation, will make it easier for women (from all strata) to move about.
women in India are willing to spend an additional $290 per year, relative to men, for a route that is safe
They can travel longer distances to explore work opportunities. Metro rides will be fast and safe for women to reach neighborhoods for work. For someone who is on the margin, spending between 30 and 70 US cents every day on public transportation to travel to work is not an option, even though this might not sound like a lot of money to people in wealthier countries.
Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer, advocates the move because it also gives women an opportunity to use their right to leisure. With free public transportation, women and girls will occupy public spaces, and go to various parts of the city just for fun.
Not so easy
Those against the policy argue that the money could be used better by focusing on institutional and systemic changes. For example on improving the city’s infrastructure like streetlights, greater surveillance, and provide free shuttle services from metro, thereby hopefully preventing crimes and improving women’s safety.
As they say, providing free rides might not reduce the crimes being committed against women.
Providing free rides to women will not address the issue of last mile connectivity either.
Despite the metro service and DTC buses, many places in Delhi are still inaccessible and women have to walk or take an additional cab to get to their final destination.
A study by Brown University found that women in India are willing to spend an additional $290 per year, relative to men, for a route that is safe.
While the government claims to entirely fund this policy, one wonders if the exchequer will be able to bear the additional economic stress? According to the media, citizens are worried that the money will ultimately come out of Delhi Transportation Corporation (DTC), and Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) two entities that are already suffering losses.
In good company
While chief minister Kejriwal claims the move is an investment on the Delhi government’s part into the safety of women and making public transportation safer for them, what is lacking from this policy are serious questions about how to make these rides safer and more efficient for women.
Has the government thought about subsidies instead of making the rides free? Can the Delhi Metro offer discounts to people below the poverty line, senior citizens, students, those with disability etc.?
By doing so they might increase ridership, still not eat into their profits and ensure those who can afford it, pay for the ride.
Despite this recent discussion, free public transportation to citizens is not a new idea. Many cities around the world are already doing it. Here is a comprehensive list.
What remains to be seen is, if Delhi will eventually join this global list. — Shruti Kapoor
(Photo credit: Adam Cohn//Flickr)