Why free public transport for women is a move in the right direction?

Ever since Delhi Chief
Minister announced his Party’s decision to make public transport free for women,
there has started a great deal of debates around it. While AAP is projecting safety
and security of women as the primary aim of this policy proposal, many are
objecting to it on the grounds that it would impose huge costs on Delhi
government’s fiscal health and overcrowd the metro, along with being
administratively tedious. Also doing the rounds is the criticism that it is a
pre-election gimmick by Mr. Kejriwal, especially in light of AAP’s poor
performance in the recent Lok Sabha elections. Though it is not advisable to disregard the immediate political
can we afford to analyze the proposal and its suitability
against just that? Do the potential demerits and implementation hurdles imply
it is a botched-up scheme unworthy of sincere attention and attempts?

Contextualizing the
The use and abuse of
gender norms and biases has been an age-old practice everywhere, and it is
well-known that India is no exception. What is under-acknowledged, however, is
that there is a significant deepening of the process of “de-equalization of
women” around the country in the recent past.[1]
And this is due not just to the absence of appropriate policies but also to the
implementation of several gender-blind ones. Researchers have found how
who-knows-for-whom demonetization as well as the so-called women’s schemes like
the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, the Direct Benefit Transfer in Kerosene have
reinforced gender norms and divide along with heightening violence against
women, both in private and public realms. In addition to
these, the 2019-20 interim budget 
has reduced allocations on women-exclusive
schemes (such as the Swadhar Greh, the Women Helpline scheme), while increasing
funds for other gender-sensitive programmes (like that related to child-care
and nutrition) only marginally.[2] As
feminist economist Ritu Dewan exclaims, these have together implied higher
budgetary commitments on the part of the Centre to cows than women of our
country this year, to the extent of 80% to be precise![3]
All the more imperative is to view such priorities against the ever-increasing
incidence of crime against women in 21st century India.[4]
This is the larger
socio-political context vis-à-vis which we should evaluate the need and
suitability of the proposed scheme of AAP. Yes, the immediate political motive
behind the move cannot be ignored. And yes, if passed, it will cost the Delhi
government substantial amount of resources each year. Yet, doesn’t the current
milieu suggest that it may prove to be a sensible intervention and that we
should welcome it if it can expand women’s access to safe mobility across the
city? Perhaps, the more important question to then ask is: can it?
Price incentive right
The capital city’s
notoriety with respect to women’s safety and security is known to all. Even
conservative measures indicate that Delhi’s crime rate has escalated to
appalling levels, making it the most unsafe for women in the country.

CR = Incidence of cognizable crimes per 1 lakh of population
Source: Crimes Against Women, NCRB 2001,
2006, 2011, 2016
The 2012 Delhi gang
rape case caused a huge public outcry to consolidate public safety and mobility
of women. But it hardly brought measures that could alter the male-dominated
face of its public spaces.[5]
Whether free metro travel for women can bring about a real change depends, to
quite some extent, on what the degree of the exclusionary effects of its high
cost has been. Calling the Delhi Metro a “prestige project” rather than a
“public service”, the transport expert Dinesh Mohan argued that it has never
been a feasible conveyance option for families earning less than Rs.
30,000-40,000 per month.[6]
This, combined with the noticeable deterioration of (quantity and quality of)
employment opportunities and the neglected and depleting DTC fleet, forced a
significant proportion of women – mostly self-employed, casual-wage and
domestic workers – to walk unsafe slum paths, highways and to bank on private buses
and minibuses, shared autos, trucks. The metro fare hike in late 2017 has
further worsened the gender composition of metro commuters, possibly pushing a
good number of female students, senior citizens, and homemakers to shift to
cheaper shared cabs, autos and other means. Rising dependence on such
unregulated modes of transport has had the obvious negative impacts on their
safety and freedom of mobility.
AAP’s proposed policy
in the form of a price incentive can reverse the trend by enabling many women
who otherwise find it difficult to afford metro use it. The increased incidence
of their visibility and shared experiences can, in turn, make metro a yet safer
and liberating space for female commuters. This can come as especially
comforting for women riding the metro during non-peak hours that often bring them
apprehensions and fear.
To have the intended
effects, however, the incentive should be supplemented with several other
steps. Improvements in the first and last-mile metro connectivity, stepping up
of DTC and cluster bus fleet, lighting up of dark spots around metro and bus
stations and other areas are some of them. Together, these can make navigation
of the city space a less-harrowing task – increasingly so in times when Delhi
is undergoing continuous social cleansing of its central areas and rapid urban
sprawl – for its women population.
The complex overlap
between class and caste-based oppression and gender discrimination is a
ubiquitous truth. The criticism that this policy would further the privileges
of Delhi’s upper-class women rather than and/or at the cost of poor male
workers misses the point and its underlying dynamics.
Delhi has a shockingly
low female labour force participation rate (FLFPR). On decomposing the rate on
the basis ofmonthly per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE), we can notice
that it is mainly the low and declining FLFPR of bottom 40%households that have
pushed thecity’s average to such levels.  
FLFPR for MPCE-based quintiles in urban Delhi
NSSO, Employment-Unemployment
Data, 1993-94, 2004-05, 2011-12
Worsening of domestic
work burden, declining employment opportunities and deterioration of quality of
work for women have been cited as the most plausible explanations for the low
level of FLFPR across income groups. Given that it is really very difficult for
women from the poorest households to give up the necessity to look for and
engage in paid work, safety concerns and traveling costs (both monetary and
time costs) could actually be major factors that restrict them from engaging in
the labour market. While this remains an under-researched area, anecdotal
evidence warns us that it must not be ignored if the tendency of low FLFPR is
to be arrested in the capital and other cities of India.
“Harassment while
walking down the street or travelling on a bus is a common occurrence for
working women and is exacerbated by the adequate lighting on streets and
(Atluri 2016)
“[After being relocated
to Bawana] Women who were earning an average of Rs 2,000 to 3,000 a month as
domestic workers are now unemployed, since travel to the nearest middle class
colonies, where they could possibly find work involves an expense Rs 20 a day
and a journey of at least an hour each way.”
(Menon-Sen 2006)
Free access to safer
public transport can help these women overcome such hurdles that constrain
their work and time capabilities. That can subsequently foster their bargaining
power and agency within as well as outside the household. Also, enhancement in
their ability to share income needs of families can reduce the extent of such
burden from their menfolk’s shoulders and can probably have an overall positive
effect on family lives of the masses.
Once again, these
possibilities cannot materialize just by making public transport free.
Complementary measures, like the ones mentioned above, are crucial to be worked
upon and implemented, too. Yet, the proposal is a move in the right direction,
a progressive intervention in the realm of spatial politics that can enhance
women’s right to their city. I thus feel we should not miss out on the chance
of responding to Delhi government’s invitation to share our thoughts on how to
make the scheme effective.
Arpita (arpitabiswas@umass.edu) is a doctoral student in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.