Plan to offer free rides to women in Delhi draws both praise and criticism

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal earlier announced that his government was working on a scheme to provide free travel for women in the Metro trains and government buses.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal earlier announced that his government was working on a scheme to provide free travel for women in the Metro trains and government buses.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - A plan to provide free rides to women 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 the participation of poorer women in the workforce.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal last week announced that his government was working on a scheme to provide free travel for women in the Metro trains and government buses. He pitched it as a move to improve the safety of women and requested women who could afford it to continue buying tickets.

The announcement has triggered furious debates on various aspects of the announcement from whether it actually promotes safety for women to whether public transport companies can handle the costs and whether men should also be accorded the same privilege.

Some see it as a populist measure ahead of next year's state elections while others have argued 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?" wondered Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research.

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 now connects the satellite cities of Noida and Gurugram. But buses are crowded and last-mile connectivity from and to 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 city 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 measures to address the safety issue, 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 women 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 decision to make rides free 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 tea cafe, is excited by the prospect. " If it really happens I can save money. I travel through 16 metro strops for over an hour every day to reach my workplace. I can't believe it will be free,'' said Ms Kaur, who spends around 1,600 rupees (S$31.40) or around 20 per cent of her salary on transport.

Every day, some 3 million passengers, out of which 30 per cent are women, use the Delhi metro network while 4 million, out of which 20 per cent are women, use buses. Metro rides cost anywhere between 10 rupees and 60 rupees, while bus rides cost anything from 10 to 25 rupees.

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

Mr Amit Bhatt, director of Integrated Transport Sustainable Cities at WRI India, a research organisation, said free transport would see more women using it, which was good. But to pitch it as a measure of 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,'' he added.

Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of free 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 in Estonia already offer free transport to all. Luxembourg is set to become the first country to offer free public transport from 2020.