Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s announcement regarding free commute on public transport, mainly the Delhi Metro and DTC buses, for women caused ripples in the national capital. The rationale given by the AAP government behind this proposal was that it will make travel safer for women. The women commuters of the Delhi Metro could avail the benefit of this scheme if their boarding or deboarding Metro station lies in the national capital.
The Delhi Metro has sent a report on the same to the Aam Aadmi Party Government. Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) has cited an annual requirement of ₹1,566 crore to fund the fare exemption (Press Trust of India, 2019). In its report, the Delhi Metro gave two options for the scheme’s implementation. Under one, women would be given pink tokens and this would take eight months to implement. While the other option was to provide women with tokens and cards, the implementation of this option would take one year. The report also included seeking approval from the fare-fixation committee.
There were a number of questions in the minds of the public. Atishi Marlena of AAP answered some frequently asked questions regarding this scheme on Facebook. One of the important questions that she answered was “how will free travel make travel safe?”. Her response was “As of now only 33% of Metro commuters are women. The fare hike last year hit women the worst, making them shift to more unsafe modes of transport like private buses, ride-sharing, or even walking. This move will help them return to the Metro’s safety. More women in any public spaces automatically make the spaces safer for women. This will help women reclaim public spaces.” Questions were also raised on the financial viability of this move and to answer that, Atishi said, “The ticket revenue lost by Delhi Metro will be reimbursed fully by the Delhi Government, DMRC will not suffer at all because of this.”
E. Sreedharan, also known as the ‘Metro Man’, is currently a principal advisor to the DMRC. In his open letter of June 10, 2019, he asked for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal intervention in the matter. In his letter, he also wrote: “One shareholder cannot take a unilateral decision to give concession to one section of the community and push Delhi Metro into inefficiency and bankruptcy.” Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia wrote to Dr. E. Sreedharan on his letter. The Deputy CM expressed his pain and surprise in the letter. He further pointed out that the DMRC is catering to an average ridership of 25 lakhs opposed to its designed capacity of 40 lakhs, which is less than 65% efficiency. He claimed that women ridership would increase by 50% after this move.
The proposal to give women free rides in the Delhi Metro received a mixed response from people. Some perceived it as the strategy of AAP to enhance its support for the upcoming polls. It was also referred to as an ‘election stunt’ and ‘vote bank politics’.
In an online survey, citizens interpreted safety as being able to walk alone at night without being harassed and having their parents extremely worried – many felt that there was no correlation between free travel and safe travel. The Metro does not distinguish its users on the basis of gender, so another criticism the proposal was subjected to was that it discriminated between men and women and the idea of equality was lost.
Moreover, it reflected the internalised patriarchy and was a wrong interpretation of feminism according to a lot of students. Since it was on the basis of the economic status of women, it also suggested that women require monetary support from others. It was felt that this move would create a lot of funding issues and taxpayers’ money would be spent on paying for tickets rather than developmental projects.
Some men I spoke to pointed out that there were four seats in each compartment and a full separate compartment reserved for women in the Metro, which was ‘grossly discriminatory’ and should be revoked. Furthermore, it might lead to misuse and huge wastage of resources if women who can afford to pay to end up availing free rides in the Metro.
While this policy was criticised by many, it also brought a lot of good things to the table. I noticed people who are rather privileged saying they do not need this free ride and it was “against their self-esteem to take things for free”. Well, the AAP government did say, “Those who can afford can purchase tickets, they needn’t take subsidy. We encourage those, who can afford, to buy tickets and not take subsidy so that others could benefit”.
So, I wonder how this is different from the various other subsidies that are given to economically weaker sections. And when I spoke to those working as domestic help, street vendors, cleaners, etc., they were beyond elated. Women are worse off than men when it comes to earning. Many women (think economically weaker strata), earn around Rs. 8,000-15,000 per month. Of this, Rs. 3,000-4,000 per month was spent on transport if they use the metro.
Women who cannot afford the metro walk long distances, use local buses that are insanely crowded or informally run local van services that are rather unsafe. This move would definitely encourage women to travel more for work and opt for better opportunities that may be far away, because it will not add up to their costs, leading to economic benefits.
This also supported the education of girls, whose travel to schools and colleges is an extra cost to the parents and hence, many drop out. Moreover, the more women come out in public spaces, the safer all women will feel – more friendly eyes on the street.
Although some might argue that nothing is safe, think of the relative safety you feel in the dark, on a crowded street versus an empty street; think how safe you feel in the ladies compartment of the metro versus the regular compartments. Nobody says that more security, CCTV, better last-mile transport is not required, it surely is. But well, the government has a million things to solve, and they have tried to solve one.
The people are divided, and so am I. I know that I would pay my metro travel charges, even if the travel becomes free. And I am happy that those who cannot afford it will get the support they need. The execution of this plan is where my imagination fails. It needs to be extremely strong to prevent leakage, while also ensuring the ease of travel is maintained. Fingers-crossed to see how this pans out!
The author is a student of the High School Achievers Program conducted by Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC). The High School Achievers Program identifies promising high schoolers and builds their capacity to lead change. This post was published as a part of the 2019 Delhi edition of the program.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of YLAC as an organisation