Free transport for Delhi women

A free ride

Print edition : July 05, 2019

Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia interacting with a passenger on June 4, the day after the Delhi government announced the proposal. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

The Delhi government seems determined to implement its proposal to make travel on the Metro and DTC buses free for women notwithstanding the many questions being raised.

THE Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi announced on June 3 that it was considering making Delhi Metro and Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses free-to-ride for women. While most women’s organisations and women commuters in general welcomed the move, it has attracted criticism from the AAP’s political adversaries who have described it as an act of sheer populism with an eye to the Assembly election in Delhi, scheduled to be held early next year.

Union Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was among the first ones to denounce the proposal, calling it “disruptionist”. “Mr Kejriwal has confused people because this is not how you give schemes. Central government needs to be on board. DMRC [Delhi Metro Rail Corporation] didn’t get any proposal from the Delhi government. Delhi government already is running out of funds; they are in debt. I don't know how Kejriwal is planning to give Metro rides for free,” the Minister said, sharing the apprehensions of many people, including women, who are wondering whether the scheme is economically viable to implement.

The Delhi government has made it clear that it is not banking on the Centre to bear the budget deficit likely to arise from a drop in revenues of the DMRC, which early estimates put at anything between Rs.700 crore and Rs.1,100 crore a year. The AAP vociferously justified the announcement, arguing that it would encourage more women to use the Metro and DTC buses, considered safer than shared autos or cabs.

“The safety of women is the most important for the AAP government. Keeping in mind the safety of women, the government has decided that in Delhi all Delhi Transport Corporation and cluster buses and the Delhi Metro will be free for women so that maximum number of women can use public transport. Public transport is said to be the safest for women. Due to the increase in Metro prices, they are not able to use these services,” Kejriwal told the media recently.

Yet, economic concerns remain. The annual budget has been passed, with the funding for specific departments already earmarked. According to the Delhi government’s initial assessment, it will have to bear an additional expense of around Rs.800 crore to sponsor the fare waiver. One of the options available to the Delhi government is to use the Consolidated Fund of Delhi for the additional expenditure, but that would require the approval of the Central government. It is improbable that the BJP, which registered a lead in 65 of 70 Assembly segments in the just concluded parliamentary election, would agree to what is likely to bring windfall electoral gains for its closest adversary in the Union territory.

The Delhi government also faces a likely roadblock from the DMRC board, whose 13 directors take a call on matters pertaining to the Delhi Metro. In the past, the AAP has been unable to get the DMRC board to reduce the Metro fares. Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia has stated on previous occasions that the AAP government wishes to slash Metro fares by 25 to 30 per cent, but the DMRC board has seemingly given this a red light.

Several women’s organisations have welcomed the fare waiver proposal. Their argument is that women are not equal beneficiaries of economic development and are still struggling for equal pay for equal work. Mariam Dhawale, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, said that women were the “worst hit by economic policies” and they needed some incentives. “It is now official that the unemployment rate in our country is at a 45-year low. What has escaped notice is the fact that women are far more at the receiving end as a result of loss of jobs. They have been pushed to the unorganised sector where exploitation is very high. In any case, the gender-based employment ratio is tilted heavily against women. In this scenario, any economic relief for women is always welcome,” Mariam Dhawale told Frontline.

The Delhi Metro currently covers over 336 kilometres with 244 stations in Delhi, Gurugram, Noida and Faridabad. It is estimated that 25 lakh commuters, one-third of them women, use the urban rapid transit system every day. If the travel is made free for women passengers, their numbers will increase significantly, leading to concerns about overcrowding. However, the Delhi government has dispelled such fears, claiming that the system can accommodate an additional 15 lakh commuters.

Kejriwal also clarified that the “subsidy will not be imposed on anyone”. “There are several women who can afford these modes of transport. Those who can afford can purchase tickets; they need not take subsidy. We encourage those who can afford to buy tickets and not take subsidy so that others could benefit,” he said as the debate raged on in social media, with several men criticising what they felt was “preferential treatment of women”.

Even as scepticism that the scheme may not see the light of the day owing to financial constraints, the Delhi government seems to be working round the clock to hasten its implementation. On June 3, Delhi Transport Minister Kailash Gahlot wrote to Delhi Transport Commissioner Rajeev Verma and asked him to take the necessary steps for implementation. As per reports in various newspapers, Mangu Singh, the Managing Director of the DMRC, and senior officials of the DTC and the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System were summoned to a meeting Rajeev Verma chaired at the Secretariat on June 6 to discuss the proposal. He asked the DMRC to apprise him of the financial implications, technical feasibility and modalities and challenges involved in implementing the scheme.

No precedent

The concept of free public transport has been experimented with in Europe and in the United States from the 1950s, more notably in countries such as Germany, France, Belgium and Estonia. These countries took the lead in making public transport free for its senior citizens or students or other disadvantaged sections. However, there is no known precedent anywhere else in the world where travel has been made free exclusively for women commuters. Luxembourg has announced its decision to make public transport free for everybody by 2020; if it is able to achieve that target, it will be the first country in the world to do so.

Women’s safety, which the AAP claims guided its decision to subsidise the Metro and DTC bus fares for women commuters, has been a pressing issue in the national capital for a long time. Various studies have shown that women take longer routes to get to their workplaces and back home if these are safer. This steeply increases their expenditure on conveyance, and hence, seen in that context, the Delhi government’s proposal makes sense. A study by Brown University, Rhode Island, U.S., anchored by Girija Borker, illustrated this. It measured how street harassment forced women scholars of Delhi University (D.U.) to alter their travel routes or even their choice of college. Girija Borker studied the travel routes of 4,000 D.U. students and found that women were willing to choose a less reputed college if the travel route to it was perceived to be safer. The study further revealed that women were willing to spend an additional 40 minutes in travel time, relative to men, for a safer route, which roughly amounts to Rs.18,800 a year more spent on travel expenses than men. Clearly, this calls for some relaxation of fares for women.

However, women activists point out that a lot more needs to be done to check the rising crime graph in the National Capital Region. Many working women in Delhi and Noida who spoke to Frontline pointed out that safety had to be ensured throughout the journey and the transit route from their homes to the metro station needed to be made safe first and pavements and alleys had to be put under greater surveillance. Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, welcomed the scheme but dismissed the security-related arguments being made in its defence. “It is not clear what the government’s intent is in making Metro and DTC bus rides free for women. It cannot be linked to women’s security since women are vulnerable everywhere and there has to be far greater intervention to address the security lapses. However, it is a welcome scheme and should be seen as the first step towards making transport free for everybody,” she said.

On the question of the social media backlash to the proposal, she said that social media did not reflect the views of all sections of society. “Are women who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, who work in the unorganised sector and face harassment at multiple levels, part of social media? Since their views are not represented in that forum, how can we take social media debates as diverse and inclusive?” she asked.