The Delhi Government’s decision to make public transport free for women in the national capital has ignited a welcome debate on safety and mobility of women in Indian cities. The policy is being debated on two fronts: Whether it is desirable at all to adopt such a policy, and if it is feasible for the Delhi government to implement it at present.
Any discussion on the desirability of this or any subsidy targeted at women must begin by accepting the shocking gender divide that exists in India and particularly, Delhi. India ranks a lowly 95 out of 129 countries in the recently released SDG Gender Index. A survey by Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2017 ranked Delhi as the most unsafe megacity in the world for women. Official data shows that crimes against women in Delhi have seen a phenomenal increase of 83 per cent between 2007 and 2016. Analysis abounds on factors that contribute to this — ineffective policing, poor conviction rates, dark spots, unsafe modes of transport, social norms towards women, among others — but there is hardly any talk of transformative solutions.
The Delhi government’s decision solves an important part of this problem by making public transport the default mode of transport for the city’s women. Experts across the globe vouch that public transport is the safest mode of transport — there’s safety in numbers. In Delhi, a large fraction of women from poor and lower middle classes, often living at the margins of existence, are constrained to walk long distances or use unsafe modes of transport than buying a bus ticket. The metro is not even an option for most of them.
By providing unrestricted access to public transport, the Delhi government’s decision also provides women an opportunity to reclaim public spaces. Besides further enhancing safety, this directly impacts the second objective of the Delhi’s government’s decision — economic empowerment of women by significantly improving access to education and job opportunities.
A detailed study published last year by the Sustainable Urban Transport Project (SUTP) and backed by the Government of India shows how women forego opportunities to work outside their neighbourhoods if they perceive transport fares and services to be expensive and unreliable. A 2017 study by a World Bank economist, Girija Borker, in Delhi’s colleges covering 4,000 students shows that female students are willing to choose a lower quality college, travel longer and spend much more than men in order to travel by safer route.
This is important since India is among the few countries globally that has seen decreasing participation of women in the workforce in the past decade, despite stellar economic growth. In Delhi, women account for only 11 per cent of the workforce — perhaps the least among Indian cities. India cannot aspire to be global superpower by ignoring the constraints faced by 50 per cent of its population.
This brings us to the feasibility of implementing the free public transport policy. Majority of the critiques offered so far suggest that public transport system may get choked or that last-mile connectivity and pedestrian safety also matter. Some have advised the Delhi government to spend public money on buying more buses and improving their reliability, while some others have invoked fancy economic theories like “broken window fallacy” that are completely irrelevant to this debate.
The big problem with all these critiques is they frame these policy choices as an either/or debate. The Delhi government has never claimed that making public transport free is a silver bullet to ensuring women’s safety — a lot more should and must be done by all public agencies concerned, especially the Delhi Police, which reports to the Centre.
On its part, the Delhi government has been making necessary financial allocations and implementing all the above policy measures year-on-year. Delhi’s 5,576 buses currently operate on average at 80 per cent of their passenger carrying capacity and can easily handle an estimated 10 per cent additional load due to this policy. Further, Delhi’s bus fleet is all set to increase by 1,000 in the next six months — an increase by 18 per cent. Another 2,000 buses are at different stages of procurement.
Delhi government has deployed dedicated bus marshalls in 60 per cent of its buses to exclusively deal with women safety issues, a first such effort by any city in India. The same is being extended to cover the remaining buses. Connect Delhi, the most ambitious reform so far to improve the reliability of Delhi’s buses, is also under way. The initiative promises to rationalise the bus and feeder services in Delhi so that all parts of Delhi are connected with a reliable public transport facility within 500-metre walking distance and at every 15 minutes. In March, the first leg of this reform was launched in Najafgarh covering 17 bus routes that are now seeing schedule adherence upwards of 90 per cent.
The present decision of making public transport for women free comes in the backdrop of these multiple reform efforts, and backed by the fiscal space the Delhi government has created for itself by sound management of state finances: Delhi’s budget has doubled from Rs 30,900 crore to Rs 60,000 crore in the last five years. That’s also the reason why all doomsday predictions of the AAP government ruining the state exchequer by its decision to give free water and power subsidy have proven to be untrue.
In fact, by carefully-targeted subsidies and an unprecedented expansion of social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, what the AAP government has managed to achieve is build the economy from below by investing in people — what Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia calls as “Trickle Up Economics”. The current decision of making public transport free for women is designed to work in a similar fashion.
Meanwhile, accountability must also be fixed on the Central government whose flawed decision of doubling fares of the Delhi metro in 2017 has seen a shock decrease in metro ridership from 28 lakh per day in 2017 to 25 lakh per day today even as the total length of metro network has increased by 55 per cent in the same period. This single move has upended all ridership targets of Delhi metro that was designed to reach 40 lakh by end of Phase 3, hitting the economically disadvantaged sections the most, including women.
The worsening state of women safety and workforce participation in Indian cities in the past decade are the result of a policy failure. Delhi government’s decision to make public transport free for women is a welcome policy innovation in this context — something the rest of the country can learn from.
The writer is vice-chairperson, Dialogue and Development Commission, a Delhi government think-tank.