I remember the first time I took a public bus in Delhi. I was 17, and had just finished my first day at Delhi University. I was the only girl on the bus towards Badarpur that hot July afternoon, and my presence was apparently such a novelty that the man sitting in front of me kept turning around to stare at me as he chewed his tobacco suggestively. I remember scolding him with a confidence that belied my age. Perhaps it was this experience that made me sign up for driving lessons and beg for the car keys from my mother a year later.
When Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced on Monday that women in the capital could use the Delhi Metro and Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses for free, this was the first incident I remembered.
Not everyone can afford the privilege of a car or even a private auto rickshaw. And being a lone woman in a bus full of men every day can be a daunting experience, prompting one to change routes, schedules and embrace a lifestyle that eschews the night.
In the press conference, Kejriwal indicated that the primary reason for the scheme was enhancing women’s safety by enabling them to use modes of transport that may have been inaccessible to them earlier due to high prices. He also added that the subsidy is optional, and women who can afford to pay can opt out.
The announcement has received some criticism, both from the opposition, which alleges this has been done with an eye on the Delhi assembly elections next year, and from others who have raised concerns about the burden on the taxpayer or why this hasn’t been extended to senior citizens. There have also been snide comments about “sops” and “freebies”.
While it is difficult to comment on the intent behind the announcement without venturing into conjecture, this scheme has the potential to be a gamechanger for women’s mobility and opportunities in a city infamous for crimes against women.
Why does Delhi need a scheme like this?
The sex ratio in Delhi is abysmal, according to the 2011 Census, which puts it at 861 females per 1000 males. According to a report by the Institute of Human Development, the Female Labour Force Participation Rate (the % of female population aged 15+ in the workforce) in Delhi in 2011-2012 was 11.2%, substantially below the national average of 25.51%. This implies that there are fewer women in public spaces in Delhi than there are men, as less women head off to work each day.
A report published in 2013 by Institute of Human Development also highlighted a stark difference in the average salaries of male and female casual workers in Delhi. In 2011-12, while men earned an average of Rs 265 per day, women earned only Rs 98 per day. A Delhi government study showed that the number of women casual workers fell in 2011-12 from 2004-05, for which one reason could be that they find it more difficult to afford the daily fares to and from work.
A research study conducted by Manish Madan and Mahesh K. Nalla in New Delhi in 2016 found that 85% men and 64% women feel that public transportation were ‘designed to accommodate men more than women’, and only 27% women felt safe using public transport, compared with 51% of men.
Researchers have also found some evidence to attest that the gender gap in a country correlates strongly with crime against women. The greater the gender discrimination in a country, the higher the crimes against women. India does not fare very well in this, standing at the 108th position out of 149 countries in 2018. By influencing access to educational and economic opportunities, the free metro and bus ride schemes may be able to make an impact on perceived and actual safety of women in Delhi.
The Way Women Use Transport
Women often end up taking public transport less frequently as compared with men. A study conducted by the Institute of Transportation & Development Policy in 2017 said sexual harassment in public transport is highly underreported in India. The same paper also quoted a study from 2006 that found that women are more affected than men when access to employment, education or basic services are located far away from their residences.
The gamut of transportation options available to women to get to and from work also remain restricted at large. In Sanjay Camp in Delhi, 52% women walked to work as compared to 26% of men.
“Many women do not have the financial freedom to decide where they can move about, and how.”
Another interesting nuance that begets discussion is the usage pattern of public transport. Women’s travel is characterised by trip chaining – shorter, more frequent trips, which combine multiple destinations at times. This is often due to the myriad child care and parenting responsibilities, coupled with running errands, that women shoulder on a typical day. This may make it costly for women to get around if they have to break their journeys multiple times. Add to that high fares and most women will consciously choose slower and less expensive modes of transport, which in turn exacerbates their poverty.
Where’s the resistance coming from?
Apart from the challenges raised by the opposition, there is non-political dissent as well, mainly among people who suggest having a free scheme for children and senior citizens instead. The DTC offers discounted passes for students and senior citizens. Delhi Metro Rail Corporation lets children under 3 feet ride for free. However, no concessions are available for senior citizens, students or the disabled. While these are necessary welfare schemes, they do not warrant detraction from the strategic foresight the free metro and bus rides for women will bring. In particular, the impact this will have on women who are casual workers, and those that cannot afford private transportation should be considered, as the ability to take the metro to a job which is slightly far could mean the difference between financial independence or lifelong servitude and in extreme cases, abuse.
Others have protested at how the taxpayer will be burdened by the Rs 700 crore worth of money this is to cost the Delhi Government. However, the government has not expressly mentioned that they will be passing this burden on to the taxpayers. Furthermore, building an equal society requires interventions that may not yield results as instantaneously as a shiny new bridge but that does not render their relevance and importance any less.
While many European countries are experimenting with the idea of making public transport completely free, mainly to dissuade people from owning and driving private vehicles in order to curb pollution, the motivation remains slightly different in New Delhi. The focus of this intervention is mainly to empower women, and the intent is to encourage them to come out into public spaces more frequently, and thereby promote equal access to these spaces for both men and women, and consequently enhancing women safety.
“By enabling women, such a social intervention will ensure that over the years more and more women come to occupy public spaces in Delhi.”
Shaking off Privilege, and Embracing Public Spaces
Those who argue that women do not need such sops as they are “doing just fine” and these freebies just exacerbate the gender inequality by putting men on the backfoot are speaking from a position of privilege. Many women do not have the financial freedom to decide where they can move about, and how. The freedom from having to pay a high price point for mobility will aid the independence of women, prompting them to step out more. It could also help women break the shackles of restrictions which are in reality embedded in patriarchal prevention rather than feigned concern. It may also empower women to overcome poverty by choosing efficient modes and routes of transportation. And finally, it will ensure that another girl child does not lose access to primary, secondary or higher education, and employment opportunities because her parents could not afford the bus and metro fare. By enabling women, such a social intervention will ensure that over the years more and more women come to occupy public spaces in Delhi.
While the scheme will not directly make inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment disappear from the public spaces, it will, over the years, encourage more women into the public realm. And that is perhaps the biggest buffer against misogyny and the first bastion of offence in breaking the resistance of a patriarchal mindset that envisions women only inside homes.