In a city of less than 1 crore women, a curious landmark was reached recently: 100 crore ‘pink tickets’, which make commuting on public buses free for women, have been used in the three years since the scheme first launched.
Behind the staggering figure are stories of women who now find it easier to travel farther for work, save a little more to run their households, and don’t need to rely on their family to head out.
Take, for instance, 30-year-old Monica, who works at the Embassy of Spain on Aurangzeb Road and stays in South Delhi. “I would take Uber and Ola, but once it became free, I stopped taking any other mode of transportation. The same goes for my house help; the free rides have helped her immensely as she saves money on commuting,” she said.
On a weekday at a bus stop in Connaught Place, women outnumbered men. For most, time and distance are measured by the number of buses they take. “My house is two buses away from CP,” said Reena (47), a cook at the embassy of Australia.
The numbers are testimony to the increasing popularity of this incredibly simple scheme, which costs the exchequer Rs 1,000 crore.
Since its launch in 2019, the policy has seen an increase in ridership of women from 25% in 2020-21 and 28% in 2021-22 to nearly 33% in 2022-23 so far, according to transport department officials.
Kalpana Viswanath, a researcher on gender-inclusive urbanisation, said pink tickets have increased mobility of women, across classes. “This is an affirmative action that signifies how there is a cognizance of challenges to women’s mobility, safety and participation in the labour force. Though travelling at night still poses hurdles, many measures, including installing lights inside vehicles, have helped.”
Amit Bhatt, managing director for India at International Council on Clean Transportation, said there is a patronising attitude towards public transport: “It should be seen as a public good…” He also pointed out that there are many countries which offer free bus rides for all. “We have to evaluate transportation not just from the perspective of revenue and expenses, but also from that of emissions, safety, and how it can help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.”
Jasmine Shah, vice-chairperson of the Dialogue and Development Commission of Delhi, and one of the persons who helped frame the policy, said the increase in ridership shows how Delhi was ahead of its time. “The idea was to provide a safe space, not just free rides. In three years, the government has invested in a full-fledged CCTV system, marshals, and panic buttons connected to a control room at Kashmere Gate. This technological investment has never been made by any other city in the country. It has provided women with an opportunity to reclaim public spaces. The buses are not for a joy ride, but a basic right that ensures mobility as a tool of empowerment by improving access to education and employment,” he said.
Going by the government’s data on fares, travelling in an ordinary bus between 4 and 10 km costs Rs 10; and Rs 15 beyond 10 km. AC bus fares start from Rs 10 till 4 km to Rs 25 for more than 12 km. For many, this adds up.
Santhoshi (35), a cook in South Delhi’s Ber Sarai who lives in Sangam Vihar, said: “There aren’t any jobs near my home, while here I earn around Rs 10,000 a month. I save around Rs 1,600 a month.” She does not travel by Metro because of the high cost and lack of last-mile connectivity where she lives.
At Chandni Chowk, Geeta Rani (49), a tuition teacher at Uttam Nagar, said: “I had a bus pass before the pink ticket. It would cost around Rs 1,500 every month. Abhi nahi chahiye. But if this service stops, it would be difficult to go back to how it was. Even bus passes are inaccessible for many, it involves a long procedure, and not everyone has the resources for it.”
For all the convenience pink tickets offer, there’s a long way to go. Monica said she has never boarded a bus at night. “Buses have few women at night, and women conductors are not quite common. A drunkard once boarded my bus and passed comments at me. Only one person stood up to him. These instances happen even during the day. Drivers say cameras are there, but that isn’t an immediate remedy.”
Seema Shakya, a lawyer from Najafgarh, said she was a frequent passenger in DTC buses during her college days at North Campus. “I stopped after incidents of eve-teasing. At night, it is very unsafe. Drivers, conductors and marshals don’t step in,” Seema said.
Three of the five buses The Indian Express took as part of this report had no bus marshals on them.
Delhi government’s bus marshals scheme was introduced by the Transport Department in 2015 to improve women’s safety. Kaloo Geharwal, a marshal at Rajghat Depot, said though it is mandatory for buses to have men in uniform, many ply without them. “Officials at the depot deploy marshals. If they are running short, buses go without any,” he said.
Though the presence of women conductors is a reassuring sight, Geharwal said they don’t get the night shift due to safety concerns. “They have an 8 am to 4.30 pm shift. But we make sure nothing untoward happens,” he said.
Viswanath said measures like improving last-mile connectivity, frequent policing, and increased activity around Metro stations, bus stops and streets would also ensure women can travel at night.
“I wish there was a pink ticket in Uttar Pradesh buses too. Metro is expensive and I don’t take it at all. Even for health emergencies, I go to Delhi hospitals only because of the free ticket.”
“Earlier, we would choose green buses as the red AC ones were costlier. Now, be it blue, red, orange or green, we don’t have to rack our brains. I come to Gurdwara Sisganj every 15 days, and I don’t have to rely on my sons to take me around.”
“I am going to Mehrauli from Chandni Chowk, 20 km away. Some days we save as much as Rs 120. Earlier, going out would cost as much as Rs 3,000 a month, and my mobility was very low. Now I can spend the amount on my kids and husband.”
“Like many basic things, transportation should be free. I can afford other means, but the pink ticket has helped many women, especially labourers. I am visiting Delhi and I have gone around the city and visited Lotus Temple, Lal Qila, and many other sites by bus.”
“I use the bus to drop my kids at school and buy groceries. I started after it became free. My daughter also takes the bus to college, and she has saved a lot of pocket money.”
“I go to Panchsheel Park from Dwarka, commuting for four hours every day. I earn Rs 10,000 and work at two houses. There are low-paying jobs in Dwarka, so I don’t mind going all the way. But people don’t give you a seat even if it is reserved for women. They say, ‘You already travel for free.’ Even if it was not free, I would still go because I earn well.”
Sneh Dogra (23), graphic designer, from Dwarka to Janakpuri
“I feel tickets should be free to a certain section of men as well.”
“But conductors and drivers rarely intervene when people are hostile. Men pick fights for seats and even over free tickets. Marshals are supposed to ensure safety; some buses don’t have them, and when some do, they are mute spectators. Sometimes, when the bus stop has more women than men, some don’t even stop. I have heard them say, ‘Free ki sawari hai, chal chal’.”
“I go to Sadar Bazaar every month to stock up my small shop in Dwarka. I earn Rs 50 a day, and saving Rs 15 makes a big difference.”
“I have medical postings at Safdarjung hospital. It takes more than an hour and a half, but it is more convenient than the Metro and is also free.”