Why is the proposal of fare-free public transport for women in Delhi a welcome move?

Ashmita Sharma
The recent proposal of the Delhi government to provide free access to women in state-run public transport has created furore on social media. Well, if you ask me, I think it is an excellent idea because it will have far-reaching implications for women! At the outset, the very conception of ‘free access’ to public transport shows how the government is ‘encouraging’ the use of state-sponsored services free of cost. Even if it is only for women, it is the first step ahead. And I don’t understand why is there such hue and cry on the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of it? Free public transport is not new and the move is already gaining a lot of support worldwide. Luxembourg is set to become the first country to make all its public transport free by 2020. Whereas, cities like Dunkirk in France, Hasselt in Belgium, and Tallinn in Estonia are already providing free commuting. Even in Scandinavian countries like Norway, Denmark and Sweden, public transport is highly subsidised. Now people will say, but those are small countries/cities with less population and a more developed economy unlike India. Yes, agreed, but knowing that the economy is in crisis, unemployment highest at 6% in the last 45 years, there is increase in jobless growth, this very section of the population still chose to vote Modi to power for the second term; but when the Delhi government shows a progressive attitude to public transport, their nerves wreck? 


Firstly, the Delhi government is going to bear the expense of around Rs.1600 crore to compensate the loss of revenue that the DMRC, DTC, and cluster scheme buses would face due to this decision. So, tax payers please relax! Secondly, this move is inviting because it is clear that the government sees women as part of the public space. Women spend less on travel and take shorter trips as compared to men because they can’t afford to pay. Questions of ‘accessibility’ and ‘mobility’ are important in this regards. The hike in the prices of Delhi metro in 2017 further hit women commuters in the city. Data shows that only 30% of the commuters in the metro are women. The public space is perceived as a space of hostility and danger for women. While this move might not directly address the issue of women’s safety in local transport, with increasing number of women reclaiming the public space via public transport there is going to be a change in the way we view our cities and public space. Presence of women in the public space will subsequently raise questions about the city’s infrastructure that needs to be designed or re-designed in a way that is more conducive or friendly for women. With more women commuting by the metro, the general compartments which are otherwise all ‘men’s zones’ will see a change and such changes are definitely notable. 
Moreover, this scheme is totally voluntary for those who wish to pay and travel. Unlike the Mumbai local trains, the Delhi metro has always remained an elitist space. This move will have far-reaching impacts both economically and culturally. Women cutting across class/caste backgrounds will now be able to access and commute by the metro. Good public transport systems play a significant role in increasing women’s participation in the workforce, which is otherwise declining. Issues of affordability, congestion, hygiene etc, which are being raised, also come from a position of privilege that we do not want to forego. We don’t want to share common spaces because we know that caste/class differences can be best explained through hygiene! For instance, the very idea of a person’s domestic help sharing the same train compartment or seat in the bus as him or her creates an extreme sense of discomfort among the middle class and elites of our society. 
The idea of accumulating private capital is so deeply ingrained in our system that accessibility to state-sponsored basic services like education, healthcare, public transport etc, is something that the society can’t reckon with. A developed country is the one where everyone irrespective of their social location are equally availing the public transport systems. It is also interesting how the Delhi government is inviting suggestions from people on the proposed scheme. This shows that it considers citizens as equal partners in policy-making. Such welfare measures are important for it makes the state accountable to its citizens. And moreover, anything that shudders patriarchy is always good! 

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Ashmita Sharma (ashmitasharma31@gmail.com) is a PhD student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. 

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