Bimla Kumari, a 48-year-old migrant from Uttar Pradesh, travels every day from Seelampur in East Delhi to Malviya Nagar in South Delhi, a distance of just under 30 km. She works as a cook and household help in a number of homes and uses the metro for her daily commute. Though the fares are steep (it costs her Rs 50 each side), Bimla chooses the metro over buses as it is faster, safer and has an AC.
But ever since the price hike last year, Bimla has been finding it harder to commute comfortably. On days when she does not have Rs 100 to spare for transport, she has to take the bus home. "But now, I hear the metro and bus service is going to be free for women", she exclaimed gleefully on Monday evening. "Kejriwal is going to win this election if he manages to make this happen," the enterprising mother of three told News18.
In what almost seems like a last-ditch effort to woo voters, just months before Delhi goes to polls, Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal announced the proposal to make metro and bus rides free for women commuters in the national capital.
In a press conference which he conducted along with Deputy CM Manish Sisodia, Kejriwal said the move was an "investment" on the Delhi government's part into the safety of women and making public transport more secure for them.
The move did not seem to go down very well with netizens. Former Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi, who recently joined the Shiv Sena, was quick to tweet that women in Delhi voted for a safer environment, not free rides.
Other women (and men) grumbled about why Kejriwal seemingly thought women in Delhi could not afford their own travel fare. The rest expressed confusion about the co-relation between improving safety and providing free rides to all women.
While the move reeks of a pre-poll sop, coming as it does barely six months ahead of Delhi state elections, the outrage against it is insightful in its own right.
Economic ramifications - Profit or Loss?
One argument is that the exchequer will not be able to handle the additional economic stress. Many have raised fears that the money will ultimately be taken out of DMRC and DTC's profits, or taxpayers' accounts. However, in a notification, the AAP government confirmed that the entire cost shall be borne by the government. And Kejriwal also stressed on the expense as an "investment".
Let us look at this aspect more closely.
While it may look like an exercise in loss, an effort to increase women in public transport may result in an increase in women participation in labour force. Various studies have time and again proved that increasing women in a labour force helps improve the economy.
According to a 2018 report in The Economist, if an equal number of women (as men) were to join the Indian workforce today, the workforce would have 235 million additional workers including both the formal and informal sector. As predicted by International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde, the addition of the women workers would make India 27 percent richer.
But would providing safer and affordable transport for women encourage more women to join the workforce?
One cannot dismiss the possibility.
Sohini Halder, a 27-year-old woman from Kolkata who works in Delhi in a sales job in a digital marketing agency, said that daily commute was definitely one of the issues women had to grapple with when thinking about taking jobs. "Many women do not take jobs that are far from their homes because it gets unsafe to commute at night," Halder said. "But why should safety concerns mar a woman's career trajectory? Men never have to think like that," she added.
Women in kitchen > Women on roads
Another interesting point to consider is that most of the people outraging against the free rides proposal are the same who had lauded the subsidy for cooking gas for women under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana.
A budgetary allocation of Rs 8,000 crore was initially made for Ujjwala, which aimed to provide 50 million LPG connections to poor women in India. An additional Rs 4,800 crore was allocated to the scheme meant for BPL card holders in 2018. All of this cost was born by the exchequer. Many cribbing about the dent to the state exchequer in giving free metro and bus passes to women had at the time lauded Ujjwala, one of the most expensive women-specific undertakings ever in India.
If cooking gas for women is an acceptable scheme and a worthwhile expense for the state, why isn't safer transport? The dichotomy here could reveal a more troubling aspect of the brand of patriarchy practiced in India - that general masses are on board with empowering women as long as she remains in the kitchen.
While there is no denying that providing cooking gas at subsidised prices is essential and a godsend to millions of women in rural as well as urban India, dismissing the need for subsidised transport in urban spaces is proof that we are still not ready to give women free and safe mobility, one of the primary building blocks of individual freedom and independence.
Strengthens economically stressed women
And lastly, the women who have been outraging against the move as sexist in assuming women cannot pay their own fares, need to remember that feminist reforms are not intended for just one section of women. It is true that the assumption that women need help with finances and thus need to get everything subsidised reinforces the belief that women earn less, thus diminishing the much sought after "equality" between men and women.
However, we must remember that the move does not just affect them but millions of women like Bimla Kumari who would be able to save a considerable amount daily.
The move will also help women daily-wage labourers. And it would make the metro, one of the quickest and cushiest means for inter-city commute, a viable option for many.
Delhi metro, as was pointed out by a Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) study, is the second most expensive metro service in the world in terms of fares. The study also pointed out, as reported by Business Insider last September, that commuting via the metro cost a middle income household 14 percent of its income.
Pre-poll sop or not, decisions such as this have the potential to bring a shift in the way people think and behave. Who is to say that a decade from now, the women now tending to their Ujjwala acquired gases would not quit the chulha to join the labour force as equals to men? But like in every other elaborate plan, some flaws are glaring.
What about LGBTQIA+ commuters? What about women who do not look like women? What about last mile connectivity - the distance between metro stations and residences? What about darkened street corners where the street lights don't work? What about unchartered buses plying unofficially like the one that Nirbhaya boarded that fateful night in Decemebr 2016?
As with any public scheme in India, implementation is key. And in this case, perhaps the key to the Aam Aadmi Party's future survival in the political arena.