The Punjab government has recently announced free education for girls from KG to PhD. At the same time, the Delhi Government has decided to use its taxpayer’s money to provide women with a free ride in Delhi Metro and bus services. The outcome of the Punjab policy is not difficult to predict. While the girls and their families will benefit economically, the future Punjab governments will face the challenge of creating jobs to keep these women from leaving the state in search of employment.
The issue I have with this policy is that it’s not in line with Nehruvian Socialism. In a socialist society, education has to be provided free of cost, and educational institutions have to be administered by the public sector. If the Punjab government plans to provide free education to girls in private institutions, this will destroy public education ( to serve the interests of the private education lobby ) and make learning even more expensive. The poor (boys) will only have access to the poor quality of education. That’s not a good scenario for a society that’s already struggling with a drug epidemic.
Delhi’s policy of free bus and metro rides for women is a fascinating one. It’s no surprise that it has come under heavy criticism from the right wing parties, lobbies and their media platforms. Unable to digest such a bold step, they have tried to undermine the decision by highlighting the issue of women’s safety. Even respected anchors like Faye Desouza transformed into the “shrill” Arnab Goswami while criticising the decision.
But the fact is that this subsidy has nothing to do with security. The issue of security falls within the ambit of the central government and is thus out of Delhi Government’s control. The policy is a social welfare experiment (since it has never been tested in India) to empower women.
It’s a fact that women get paid less than their male counterparts. Whether the woman is a student, a single working mother, this subsidy, which would help save 10% of their income will go a long way in getting these women out of poverty. Another issue is that most public infrastructure is designed and built, keeping the requirements of men in mind. That’s why you don’t see enough toilets for women. Even the pathways, the height of buses, seats, luggage shelves, platforms and overhead support handles inside the trains and buses are designed for men. So this policy will encourage designers to rethink the design of public infrastructure and safety measures to be suited for both men and women.
What about the financial burden? Is it a good idea for the government to spend money on women? In my home State Goa, the government gives homemakers a monthly dole of ₹2000. This is an ill-planned scheme since there is no way to keep track of whether the money is used for essential items or luxury. To me, this scheme has failed because inflation (caused due to this free liquidity in the market) is stealing away this money. Instead, if the government had given a special payment card with a limit of ₹2000 per month which could only be used on groceries, fair price shops, medical stores etc, that would have not only prevented inflation due to liquidity but also helped the government keep a track on how the money is being spent. Moreover, the data could have helped fine-tune the scheme.
Goa also has a 30-year-old scheme where all students and senior citizens get a 50% discount on the bus ticket fare. The programme has helped lakhs of students travel to distant colleges in Goa. Although no scientific study has been done on the impact of this policy, one can conclude that the policy is successful since Goa has one of the most highly educated populations in India. So Delhi Government’s decision to spend money is not out of the ordinary.
But are there better alternatives to this policy? For example, should the Delhi government have given 100% travel subsidy to students instead of women? Should (as many are claiming on social media) the scheme have been given to poor daily labourers? Maybe. But I prefer Kejriwal’s experiment over the replication of an existing policy.
We need to know what will happen if women get to travel for free. Let’s do a simple thought experiment. What could be the outcome of this decision?
1. There will be a significant increase in the number of women travelling by metro.
2. This will benefit women and their families socially and economically.
The Delhi metro is running at less than 30% of its capacity. This infrastructure is a waste of money if it’s not being used to its full capacity.
Do we expect the economy to change instantly? Maybe not. But there will be a cascading effect. For example, in a year or two, rental apartments and businesses around metro stations which are dependent on women will be on high demand. Congestion in long-distance bus routes will decrease, and more people will start commuting by the metro, which in the long run would also lead to a reduction in air pollution.
The point to ponder here is not how will women benefit, but what those benefits are. If it fails, so be it. If it succeeds and let’s say more women enter the workforce, then the impact will be felt across society, both socially and economically.
We Indians are brainwashed to accept any capitalistic decision, such as a hike in train fares due to the rise in crude oil prices. The people have absolutely no idea about how much all the companies involved in the production and distribution of the fuel are making in the process. We accept that the crude prices have gone up as if it’s a natural phenomenon. You’ll never hear any news anchor screaming over the fact that oil prices are arbitrarily decided by OPEC and diesel prices are decided by Indian oil companies to maximise their profits. But when it comes to a ‘government’ offering to take a little burden off women, the right-wing mainstream and the social media turn into a lynch mob.
Another interesting observation is that in January 2019, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation had proposed the privatisation of two of its lines. With this policy, Kejriwal has most likely derailed DMRCs privatisation bid since this subsidy will bring a higher amount of scrutiny in the operations of the corporation. This probably is another reason why the right-wing party is fuming over the policy. What if women in other BJP run states like Maharashtra start demanding this subsidy? If the women of Mumbai began making such a demand, will Reliance (Mumbai Metro) fight back or succumb to the public pressure? This could pretty much explain the verbal assault launched by the news media channels on this subsidy scheme.
Uber and Ola are also victims of this scheme. While men are comfortable sitting with strangers in a shared taxi, women usually travel alone. Therefore, these taxi services will likely lose a not-so-small yet significant chunk of business.
The bottom line is that the Delhi Government’s decision is in line with Nehruvian socialism. Although it’s radically different from Punjab’s policy of free education, both will help in solving the problems faced by women which are unique to the State. The larger issue is that a majority of women are still treated like property/second class citizens in India, and there is no single solution to this problem. Let us allow the Delhi government to try something different for women empowerment, and perhaps it can actually make a difference.