The Delhi government’s proposal to make metro and bus travel free for women not only encourages women to use public transport more, but also allows them to occupy public spaces more and exercise their right to work and commute much more freely.
According to various studies, women’s choices (and often those of their spouses and families) about work are determined by their commuting experience, including the availability of modes of transport, distance of the workplace from their residence, presence of other women during commute, and safety of the overall route. For many families, it is the cost of commute that determines their choice of work.
A recent report by Deloitte revealed that female labour force participation fell to 26% in 2018 from 36.7% in 2005 amidst the larger unemployment crisis. A move like this could therefore increase productivity and women’s participation in the economy.
More importantly, this move could make the Delhi metro (a state-of-the-art, air-conditioned public mode of transport) accessible to working-class women for whom the metro has always been an aspirational vehicle. Given that the principal logic of any public service is that it should be inclusive, free (or at least inexpensive) access to metro trains and buses must also necessarily extend to the urban working poor, students, the differently abled, and senior citizens — albeit with an option of self-exclusion for those who can afford it. Post metro fare hikes in 2017, ridership dropped by over three lakh passengers per day, owing to increased unaffordability.
Ecologically too, in a polluted city like Delhi, universalising cheap access to public transport and disincentivising private vehicles as much as possible is the need of the hour.
Finally, those arguing that this move would reinforce the idea that women are the ‘weaker sex’ often turn a blind eye to the notion of equality when it comes to acknowledging large gender pay gaps, how women rampantly indulge in unpaid labour, or how public spaces are visibly gendered (there is a near absence of women on the streets of Delhi after a particular time).
This is not to say that the government’s proposal will automatically lead to safer environments for women. It must be supplemented with efforts towards greater capacity building, increased frequency of metros and buses, provision of all-women’s coaches and buses, street lighting, stepping up last-mile connectivity, deployment of women guards, and so on. And most important is the need for radical attitudinal shifts. Discussing the merits of a proposal like this and learning from examples around the world is important rather than attacking it the minute it is announced.
Akriti Bhatia is a PhD Research Scholar at the Delhi School of Economics