OPINION | Free Metro Ride for Women: How Kejriwal's Ambitious Plan Trashes Principles of Economy & Statehood
At the heart of the issue is the desperation of a party that has lost its moral authority (from its tirade against the Congress to frantic efforts to join hands with it), and is fast losing its political base.
Illustration by Mir Suhail/News18.com
Politics continues to plumb new depths. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s announcement regarding free commute on public transport, mainly the Delhi Metro, for women in the national capital underlines this fact. The rationale is that it will make travel safer for women; the reality, as we shall see, is quite different. The consequences could be more calamitous than the revenue loss to the state exchequer.
Atishi of the Aam Aadmi Party, Delhi's ruling party, answered a number of frequently asked questions or FAQs on the subject on Facebook. The first and most important: how will free travel make travel safe? “As of now only 33% of Metro commuters are women. The fare hike last year hit women the worst, forcing them to shift to more unsafe modes of transport like private buses, ride-sharing, or even walking. This move will help them return to the Metro’s safety. More women in any public spaces automatically makes (sic) those spaces safer for women. This move will help women reclaim public spaces,” said Atishi.
While the fare hike did affect the commuters from lower income groups, there is no evidence to suggest this had an adverse impact on the movement of women. Further, safety of women — indeed the safety of every citizen — cannot be ensured by just making one area secure.
The mode of transport may be safe, but everybody has to walk to their homes; they also go to local markets, parks, schools, etc. In fact, it is only a small fraction of time that even regular public transport users spend in the Metro; mostly they are out of it. Free travel for women in the Metro will make them safer is like saying that the Election Commission’s school-masterly attitude during polls makes our politicians decent.
In the ultimate analysis, safety is a function of the effectiveness of the law enforcement apparatus. Now, this has been the constant refrain of the AAP government in Delhi that police should be under its control, but that is a constitutional matter; it will require legislative change for that to happen. But even if we assume, hypothetically, that the change is made tomorrow, and the state government meaningfully carries out police reforms, it will be a time-consuming process. At any rate, measures like free Metro commute will not be of any assistance in improving the law and order situation.
On the question of the financial viability of this move, Atishi said, “The ticket revenue lost by Delhi Metro will be reimbursed fully by the Delhi government. DMRC (Delhi Metro Rail Corporation) will not suffer at all because of this.”
Fully reimbursed by whom? Certainly not by Kejriwal, Atishi, and other AAP leaders; it will be done by taxpayers — specifically, the taxes Delhiites pay. This would mean either higher taxes or reduced expenditure by other departments.
The FAQs posted by Atishi and the statements made by other AAP leaders are actually an exercise in smoke and mirrors. At the heart of the issue is the desperation of a party that has lost its moral authority (from its tirade against the Congress to frantic efforts to join hands with it), and is fast losing its political base. If it costs Rs 700 crore, so be it; AAP leaders, and those from other parties, are not known for fiscal prudence.
That this is an outrageous proposal is obvious. The much bigger issue is that something so shocking and unwise can be said by somebody as important as a chief minister. Here is a leading, ambitious politician who wants to trash the basic principles of economics and statecraft. You pay for something that you use; this is elementary. There can be an element of subsidy; and there is in several services in our country, including in public transport in Delhi. This is universally accepted.
Whether there should be any subsidy in the first place is another debate, but there is consensus among economists and policymakers that subsidy should be for those who need it. But the Kejriwal government is just discarding the user-pays principle that even the most welfarist of polities have not done away with till date.
The proposal also undermines statecraft as it simply ignores fiscal prudence. A welfare state is a state first; and a state can offer freebies to its citizens only if it has resources to do that. If the state foregoes such justified revenue as fare from public transport, it is being grossly irresponsible. Besides, the state also has to perform its essential duties like running the administration and managing economic policy. Without money, nothing can be done.
What is in danger, therefore, is not just public finance but also the user-pays principle. This is how the proposal of free commute is subversive.
(The author is a freelance journalist. Views expressed in the article are personal)
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