Several women activists have welcomed Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s proposed policy of free transport for women in DTC buses and metro trains , but maintain that this is only the first step towards ensuring women safety and empowerment, as many other factors such as secure working environment and generation of more jobs are equally important.
Calling the move a progressive step, activist Shabnam Hashmi said it will especially benefit the lower middle classes. “A lot of women are unable to venture out for work as they cannot afford it. Increased mobility also ensures freedom over a period of time. A large section of women earn anything between ₹10,000 and ₹15,000, and free transport would mean that they will be able to save at least ₹2,000 per month. This can make a lot of difference to them,” she said.
Free metro rides would also mean safer commute for women, said Kavita Srivastava of People’s Union for Civil Liberties. “Several women hesitate to board private buses, especially after the Nirbhaya incident. However, if travel on the metro is made free, it will definitely become easier for women to commute. The fact that the Delhi Metro is expanding at such a fast pace is an added advantage.”
On questions being raised on the rationale behind the policy, Ms. Srivastava said: “It is important to note that when minimum wages are suppressed and proper ration is not provided, it is okay for the government to at least provide some kind of subsidy in terms of public transport.”
Some activists, however, stressed that free transport may not necessarily mean safer travel. Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women said, “While we are not opposed to the idea, it has nothing to do with the safety and security of women. It is a welcome step, but eventually it should be extended to those who cannot afford public transport. An intervention needs to be made for all those who are reeling under economic distress.”
‘Need more jobs’
She pointed out that women’s participation in the workforce in India has reduced to 27%, hence generation of employment and implementation of existing legislations are equally essential.
“About 93% of the Indian workforce is in the unorganised sector and constitutes mostly home-based workers. Free transport is one factor but it will only help the workforce if the workplace environment is improved. If it is a short-term publicity stunt it will not work,” Ms. Raja explained.
‘Pinjra Tod’, an autonomous collective of women students in Delhi, hailed the government’s move and also criticised certain groups which claimed “providing free rides only to women was not equality”. The group in a statement said, “Equality is not the denial of particular needs or turning a blind eye to power differences, where entire classes of people, based on their gender, caste, class, race identity are systematically and historically put in a position of disadvantage and marginalisation. Equality is the end of socially differentiated power which requires organised intervention on the side of those oppressed/excluded/exploited.”
Renuka Viswanathan, former Principal Adviser of the erstwhile Planning Commission, said the Delhi government’s decision would encourage women to go out and work. She even wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 18 seeking his support to the policy.
“Women, irrespective of what strata they belong to, should be in charge of their income and mobility. If the Delhi government has surplus budget and political legitimacy, then surely this scheme will be sustainable in the long run. The government can easily work out a system where it pays the DMRC upfront to ensure it does not run into losses,” said Ms. Viswanathan.
Some, meanwhile, saw the move as a “poll gimmick” which was bound to fail. Poonam Parashar Jha, president of the BJP Mahila Morcha, said, “These freebies being promised by the government, especially before the upcoming elections, will not work. E. Sreedharan [former Delhi Metro chief] has also pointed out what will happen to the metro if this policy is rolled out. If the government actually wants to empower women, it should focus on generating jobs for them.”
Vaani Subramanian of Saheli Women’s Resource Centre said that the “grand gesture with zero impact” will not help women. “The announcement is more of an economic measure and not based on safety issues. Even though last-mile connectivity has improved, it still is a hassle in many areas. The policy should have been better thought out.”
“Mobility is only one step. It has to be complemented by other factors, including proper wages and better facilities at the workplace. Using women’s issues in a populist framework is not a good idea,” she added.
‘Investment for future’
Suneeta Dhar, an adviser at Jagori, a Delhi-based NGO working for women empowerment, welcomed the move and said that the government should not see it as a subsidy. “More than a subsidy, see it as an investment to increase women’s participation in public spaces and workforce,” she said.
Ms. Dhar suggested the government should redesign the transport system for women’s safety. “There should be last-mile connectivity, buses should stop near women’s workplaces and houses among other measures. Just free rides won’t help, but it’s a welcome step,” she added.
Jyotsna George, campaign manager (gender and sexuality) at Jhatkaa.org, a group campaigning for citizen power, said they have been running an online campaign on the issue. “Research shows that women feel safer in public spaces when there are more women around,” Ms. George said.
“The government has to take this momentum forward and initiate many more steps such as last-mile connectivity and fixing street lights. Don’t stop at giving free tickets,” she said.