Since June 3, when the Arvind Kejriwal led Delhi government announced that it would roll out a plan to make all public transport in the city free for all women, which include the Delhi Metro, Delhi Transport Corporation buses and cluster buses, the nation has seen an avalanche of reactions targeting the move. It has been termed populist, unreasonable and discriminatory in nature. The centre has also reportedly opposed the idea citing it as not feasible. The Delhi government announced the plan in order to enhance the safety and security of women in public transport, which is being annulled by many vehemently. The main points of disagreements may be summarized as:
1) In order to facilitate movement for women, this move has been seen as discriminatory against men and many have deemed it degrading to women as well;
2) There is no relation between safety and financial subsidy;
3) This move will burden the government financially.
The proponents of the first point are of the opinion that the government should give subsidies to the economically disadvantaged, not only to women. This is not equality but blatant populism in an attempt to attract votes. However, it is an acknowledged fact that the female labour force participation in India is at an all time low. The female labour force participation has had a decadal fall from 36.7% in 2005 to 26% in 2018, with 95% (195 million) women employed in the unorganised sector or in unpaid work.
We must understand the gravity of the situation and its effects on India’s GDP, and therefore deploy all possible means to facilitate its growth. Maybe if public transport is made free, we could see a rise in women labour force in Delhi. In a country where there is a gradual decline in women labour force, it is only imperative that special favours will be given to increase women labour force only.
Various surveys have also shown that generally women tend to work in close proximity to their home, due to various factors combining. It has been shown that they compromise on their choice of career just due to the distance of their office from home. We can hope that allotment of free public transportation will contribute to more women joining the labour market, irrespective of the distance.
Many people (including women) are of the opinion that this move undermines their ability to buy their own tickets, it is as if what is being insinuated is that women are financially incapable compared to men. However objectionable this sounds to us – the privileged, middle class section of society sitting in air-conditioned rooms and waging social media activism – this is the hard reality.
Women really are an economically backward section. The innocuous gender pay gap reports states that clearly. According to the latest Monster Salary Index Survey, women in India earn 19% less than men, where men earned ₹46.19 more than women in one hour. Where there is such a stark gender pay gap, many women cannot afford to pay for their transportation in comparison to their male counterparts. Thus, the women who are saying that they must be considered as equals are those who can afford to pay their fare. This has nothing to do with dignity. Opening up avenues for the disenfranchised to travel is the least that can be done.
It is saddening that the neo-liberal education has made us lose not only the meaning of what the public means but also that of equality. The idea of publicness of not just public transport but health and education as well. Free education, free healthcare and free transportation is our right and it has to occupy centre stage. The social reality is completely different from armchair activism, and to change that reality one day this step is a welcome foot forward.
Some people are saying that there is no correlation between subsidized transport and security for women. They are saying that installation of CCTV cameras or deploying more security personnel would have been more effective to achieve this goal. Maybe we are assuming a different sense of the security altogether. Security does not always mean physical security – the masculine idea of a male security personnel saving citizens’ lives. Besides this, there is something called social security as well.
If more and more people acquire these public spaces, invariably there will be an increased sense of safety and security among women. The notion of gendered spaces must be dismantled, with more and more women coming out and acquiring the public space. If public transport is being made free for women, the student returning at night from tuition classes, the employee returning from office, or the one going for her night duty will no longer need to pay extra for personal transport and will avail the public alternatives freely. This move by the Delhi government may be instrumental in instilling this sense of social security in a city which is notorious for women feeling unsafe.
The last argument about the economic burden on Delhi Metro really holds no ground. Atishi, an AAP party member has already said, “The ticket revenue lost by Delhi metro will be reimbursed fully by the Delhi government. The DMRC will not suffer at all because of this.” Arguments that are still concerned about the burden of this huge subsidy on the government lack basic human sensitivity.
In a country where insurmountable amounts were spent by the political parties in the recently concluded parliamentary elections, where ₹300 crore were spent to erect the statue of a late politician, where political personalities spent insane amounts for their publicity in hoardings and posters, no one raised their voices, no one asked for the accountability of the government. If money can be spent on political agendas, it should be spent on social agendas as well. The development of a country cannot be calculated only by its GDP, human resource development must be taken into account too.
Lastly, above all these arguments, there is a space for social justice too. In a country where parents still feel the education of their girl child is a waste of money, even if a single girl can avail her education through this free mode of transportation, India will gain a precious human resource. Even if only one woman can gain her free mobility, we will head a step towards a positive direction. Let us keep our patriarchal sense of entitlement aside, and strive for redemption against ages of deprivation on account of gender.
It is 2019, economics cannot be directed only by the sense of profit. It is high time the concept of ‘welfare’ is incorporated into it. A welfare state takes its citizens along on the way to sustainable development. India must not override the sense of justice and welfare with mere numbers.