Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘Free Public Transport Service’ – Can it be a Solution to anything?

Photo Courtesy: Renuka Puri, Indian Express

Delhi Government and its unusual schemes were in news yet again, the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had announced that the government will provide free rides to women in Delhi Metro trains and Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and cluster. And as expected with everything Kejriwal- the ‘Insignificant Man’ does or says, this has made quite a stir. The Centre is calling it a scam and not a scheme; with words like ‘discriminatory’ and ‘unfeasible’ being used to describe it. True, it does seem discriminatory as it clearly favours one gender over the other, although the historical oppression and persecution of this particular gender is so often forgotten and even uncompensated. Economically unfeasible as the Delhi Government is already in debt, who will then eventually take the burden of this free service?

The scheme will get implemented in 2-3 months, or so the AAP Government claims. It would cost around 700 crores to the government, which seems like a hefty amount. To implement the proposal, the DTC and the management of cluster buses have proposed that special women pass or color-coded tickets be introduced. The same could be done for metro rides as well. However, there are many technical issues. It is so that the ticket reading facility cannot distinguish between male or female riders. This leaves doors open to numerous chicanery and subterfuge. Moreover, determining one’s gender merely from appearance is itself problematic and opens up complexities of gender fluidity. The other question it raises is, what about the other genders?

Kejriwal has claimed that this scheme is one step closer to attain women safety in public transportation. The other argument is how women are often the ones who suffer because of high transportation costs. The Delhi Metro has seen a fall of 3 lakh riders after the fares got hiked in 2017, there is however no way of knowing if this fall has a gender bias or not. There is no denying that Delhi is one of the most unsafe megacities for women in the country as a survey by Thompson Reuters claims. A 2017 paper by Brown University Ph.D. scholar Girija Borker titled ‘Safety First: Perceived Risk of Street Harassment and Educational Choices of Women’, found that fears of sexual harassment do cost women their economic mobility in Delhi. The free ride for women with such concerns is a welcoming one. After all, who would want to incur traveling costs all the way just to be harassed and leered? Free public transport for women would mean a greater inclusion of women in the public sphere, less chances of sexual harassment with an increase in the number of women in the public sphere and an increase in the female work participation rate. From 2001 to 2011, as seen from Census data, as many as 19.6 million women have fallen off the employment map of India. This is particularly eerie, isn’t the world changing? Aren’t more and more women getting empowered? But in reality, the Economic Survey for 2015-16 puts India’s female workforce participation at 24%, the second lowest in South Asia, above only neighboring Pakistan.

Social attitudes and the burden of household chores are some of the reasons for this dismal rate of female workforce participation rate, along with travel costs. This can be looked at as a sort of an ‘opportunity cost’ along with travel time and safety- the cost of working as compared to not working, which becomes higher with higher traveling costs and unsafe traveling environment. A free ride to the workplace for a lower-middle-class woman battling to whether work or forego, is more inclusionary and empowering than any other scheme that has been made. Metro was a way for many women in the city to finally realize their dreams, it changed many lives and increased accessibility. But the rising fares and the increasing crimes have changed this dynamic, public transport should be safe and affordable. And this should be for everyone. Since that does not seem feasible right now, why shouldn’t one group of people, who have been historically excluded, a benefit since it is not costing anything to the other group?

And of course, there is the choice of paying for the fare if one can afford it- this could be only a negligible number of females, but there is the ‘choice’. The rising air pollution in the city can also be tackled by increasing the use of public transport, and Delhi has come an appalling cropper in mitigating with it, any small step towards this direction seems necessary as well as required. The AAP government has also dismissed claims of overcrowding of metro as there is a ‘window of 15 lakh commuters’, leading to only inclusion of women in the public domain.

Free urban transport is fast spreading, with cities like Dunkirk and Tallinn already getting ahead in this race and countries like Germany and China exploring the possibilities. For Delhi, it remains to be seen how far this scheme will work, if it indeed increases female workforce participation rate and makes public transport more inclusive, the spillover effects of which would indeed be far-reaching. Implementation needs a rethinking, it should not remain just another political gimmick, there is a scope of making it as exemplary as the education and health schemes of the AAP government, the purpose should not be lost in the process. The scheme can also be expanded to be more inclusive of transgender and the other genders, who have also been historically persecuted and excluded.

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Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘Free Public Transport Service’ – Can it be a Solution to anything?

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