New Delhi split on free transport for women

Safety concerns prompted Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to announce plans for free rides for women on public buses and metro trains. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Safety concerns prompted Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to announce plans for free rides for women on public buses and metro trains. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Chief minister says move is for safety reasons, others think it's populist measure

A plan to provide women with free rides on public transport in India's capital city Delhi has sharply divided opinion between those who think it is discriminatory or populist and those who believe it will encourage poorer women to join the workforce.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal last week said his government was working on a scheme to let women travel for free on the capital's metro trains and government buses. He pitched it as a move to improve the safety of women and asked women who could afford it to continue buying tickets.

It has triggered furious debates on various aspects of the plan - from whether it actually promotes safety for women to whether public transport companies can handle the costs, and if men should also be afforded the same privilege.

Some see it as a populist measure ahead of next year's state elections, while others have argued that the money could have been spent to further improve public transport.

"To give free transport to poor and elderly women is fine, but to give it to all women is not helpful. Women who can pay, want better services and protection. How can free travel be linked with safety?" Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, pointed out.

Delhi, with a population of around 19 million, has one of the better public transport systems in the country with a constantly growing metro system that connects the satellite cities of Noida and Gurugram. But buses are crowded and last mile connectivity to and from metro stations remains a problem.

The better-off prefer to drive, with 1,400 cars being added to the city's roads every day, leading to heavy traffic congestion.

 
 
 

To top it off, the capital has also acquired a reputation for being unsafe for women. In 2012, a young woman was gang-raped in a moving bus. She died in a Singapore hospital from her injuries. Women often complain of being groped or harassed on public transport.

The authorities have taken other steps to enhance safety, with the metro, for instance, having a women's-only coach on each train.

Still, many support free public transport for women, believing it will encourage them to go out to work. A paper by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy said that "safe, comfortable, convenient and affordable transport" could open up more opportunities for women to join the workforce and transform the economy.

The Delhi Metro has said the "free ride" decision will take at least eight months to implement even as the Delhi government is pushing for a three-month roll-out.

Ms Gurmeet Kaur, 23, who works in a cafe, is excited by the prospect. "If it really happens, I can save money. I travel through 16 metro stops for over an hour daily to reach my workplace. I can't believe it will be free," said Ms Kaur, who spends around 1,600 Indian rupees (S$32) or about 20 per cent of her monthly salary on transport.

Every day, some three million passengers, out of which 30 per cent are women, use the Delhi metro network while four million, out of which 20 per cent are women, use buses. Metro rides cost between 10 and 60 rupees, while bus rides cost between 10 and 25 rupees.

The free rides are expected to cost the exchequer between 7 billion and 8 billion rupees a year.

Mr Amit Bhatt, director of Integrated Transport Sustainable Cities at WRI India, a research organisation, said free public transport for women would be a good move. But to pitch it as a measure to improve women's safety may not be accurate, as that would include safe access to trains and bus stops.

"Also, if the Delhi government is not able to get a dedicated source to compensate public transport agencies for the loss of revenue, it will decrease the quality of service and people will move out of it."

Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of free bus and train rides for women. Mr Govind Singh, who works in a placement agency, said: "What about the men? I think men should get 50 per cent off. But anyway, it will be good for my mother and sisters."

Dunkirk in France and Tallin in Estonia already offer free public transport for all, while Luxembourg is set to become the first country to offer free public transport from next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2019, with the headline 'Delhi split on free transport for women'. Print Edition | Subscribe