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Ticket to Freedom: What Delhi's Women Think About the AAP Government's Free Bus Rides Policy

Women display their pink tickets on a Delhi bus (PTI)

Women display their pink tickets on a Delhi bus (PTI)

Poll sop or not, a lengthy bus trip reveals that the measure aimed at women is helping them — particularly those from less-privileged backgrounds —​ become less dependent on others and feel more empowered.

She has got a ticket to ride, and it is free!

No, we are not talking about the top singles numbers by The Beatles in the late 1960s.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal gave 'her' a free ticket to ride in buses on October 29.

It is a little past 1pm when we hop on to the ‘outer Mudrika plus’ or ‘bahari Mudrika plus’ at the bustling Uttam Nagar bus depot in west Delhi. It is the bus we had been waiting for. Today, driver Raghuvir Singh is at the wheel. He will drive the bus 125 kilometres through the edges and bowels of the capital, pausing at nearly 160 stops before completing the journey after nearly eight and a half hours at this bus depot. Incidentally, the outer Mudrika plus has the longest run in the route card by the Delhi Transport Corporation of the Delhi government.

Lean and tall with silver hair, Raghuvir, taking his seat behind the steering wheel, asserts in Hindi that the free bus ticket has made a tremendous difference in the numbers of women passengers. “A lot of women are travelling now. That wasn't the case earlier. Now they are filling the buses.”

Even before the bus starts moving from the depot, we meet Astha, a homemaker with two children whose husband works in a private company earning Rs 20,000 a month, as she collects her ‘lal ticket’ before taking a seat. A regular bus commuter, today Astha, who is travelling with her younger daughter to meet a relative, says, “There is a sense of confidence inside the buses now. Kejriwal has taken a good step for women.” She explains, “The benefit of the free ride is an enabler in our travel, it makes it convenient for us. Metro fares are high while in buses, there are no fares. So it is beneficial for ladies and they take benefit; even those who are illiterate are availing of the benefits.” Pointing towards a sense of unspoken solidarity among women, Astha affirms, “In Metro trains sometimes there are no people to guide you, but in buses, there are women who guide each other.”

Taking off from Astha, Veena Sharma, a retired schoolteacher in the seat across, jumps into the conversation. “Of course, there is a sense of confidence, as educated women come to the aid of those who are illiterate.” Sharma also emphasises the increased freedom of women: “Husbands did not allow women to visit their parents’ homes and relatives’ homes. Now the same women can travel to their parents’, relatives’ homes with ease and they are doing that with their children.” Sharma is on her way to Seemapuri to visit her son-in-law who had met with an accident. Sharma also has a solution for the men who complain that while they buy their tickets and don’t get a seat, women travel free yet occupy the seats. “Those above 60 years can always tell younger women to leave their seats. The younger ones can stand.”

Covered with a burkha, Muskan is travelling back to her in-laws' house after a visit to her parents’ home on her own and is happy about her newfound entitlement of free rides in buses. While she does not earn, her husband works as a tailor making Rs 15,000 a month. Asked whether the move has made her feel more empowered, Muskan says, “This has made a lot of difference. I don’t have to ask for money from anyone; even when I don’t have money, I can still travel.” But does she have to take permission to travel? Muskan explains: “No, I don't ask. Earlier, we had to pay to travel. Now even if we don't have money, we don't need to ask anyone for some. Just travel as you please.”

After a lifetime of uncertain income in the informal sector, Shomkari and her husband are in the evening of their lives. When I ask Shomkari whether the free bus ride will benefit women, she looks at me with disbelief, almost retorting what is obvious to her. “There are benefits; isn’t that why the government has made rides free? Even if one travels occasionally, she still saves at least Rs 100. That money she can use to buy vegetables.” Shomkari is also of the opinion that women who don’t step out of their homes for work, will feel encouraged to do so if faced with unforeseen challenges.

Seventeen-year-old Monica Yadav is studying to be a teacher with a lofty aim: “So that I can teach kids and brighten their future.” Daughter of a property dealer, she is on her way back home alone after attending her classes in Ghumanhera on the outskirts of Delhi. A regular bus commuter, she says that the ‘pink pass’ has enabled her to save a significant Rs 1,800 to Rs 2,000 every month and is a definite advantage. On the flip side, she says that the pass may also encourage women with criminal intent like theft to get on to the buses.

As one woman leans over the window to vomit, the marshal on duty, Vinay Kaushik, immediately makes his way towards her, makes sure that she has some water and is stable. Armed with a twelfth-class-pass certificate, this is his third year on the job. Kaushik is clear that he has to look out for the safety and convenience of women and physically challenged passengers. “The number of women travellng in buses has gone up. They feel it's safe and comfortable for them now,” responds Kaushik when asked about the presence of women post the free ride decision.

As the bus pauses in Mangolpuri and the door clicks open, young mother Sonu rushes in with her toddler Ishita, puts her hand out to the conductor for the ‘lal ticket’ and makes her way towards the front side of the bus. Like many other passengers that we met today, she is also on her way back home after a visit to her aunt. Sonu’s husband works in a printing press and makes approximately Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 a month if he puts in extra hours. Else, his monthly income is Rs 9,000. She counts the expense saved on travelling as the single most important takeway. “Nowadays, if you travel long distances, it costs a lot. Metro rides are expensive too. A lot of women earn these days, so they can save more this way. If someone travels long distances, she would save about Rs 1,000 at least, and benefit more.”

There is an interesting sign on the bus with chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s face. It says in Hindi, “Travel on this bus is free for women. However, those who want to buy tickets are welcome.” In the four hours that we have already spent on the bus so far, we haven’t seen a single woman who has chosen to buy a ticket. The same sign says on the left side: “Warning! Do not try to harass any woman. There's a marshal present on this bus.”

Bus conductor Naveen Kumar is having a comparatively lighter day at work since this is a Saturday. His reading of the impact of the free bus ride for women is simple and emphatic: “This has made a lot of difference. Every single day, the number of women passengers is growing. I have to issue at least 250 passes every day, ever since the day travel was made free for women. Their percentage has definitely increased. I am inside the bus every day and I can say that earlier there weren’t so many women before, on this route specifically; it has increased by a minimum of 20 per cent.” On this day, the seats in the front half of the bus are occupied almost entirely by women. Kumar also believes that the step will “automatically: enhance self-confidence in regular women commuters due to the saving of at least Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,300 she would accrue on account of free travel. Money in hand, he believes, increases self-confidence.

A sample survey carried out by DTC and transport consultancy Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Ltd (DIMTS) revealed that the percentage of women commuters ranged from 30 to 31, i.e., just a third of the total commuters before October 29. However, in less than a month with women being entitled to free rides, the percentage of women commuters (pink passes) stood at 42 (latest data on November 19) and is only expected to rise. As per Delhi government’s data, a staggering 46.7 lakh people use the the 7,766 DTC and cluster buses every day.

Smriti and Puja are taking multiple courses and when we meet them, they are returning home after attending classes under IGNOU from east Delhi's Dilshad Garden. Puja’s father is an AC mechanic whose earning opportunities dry up as winter appears. Apart from her course at IGNOU, Puja also is interning at a nursery school and will start drawing a salary only from April next year. When asked how a pink pass has impacted her life , she says, “I find it beneficial because my father earns very little and we are perpetually short of money. So this way I can help save some. My travel costs about Rs 50 daily. I would go to Ashok Nagar to teach children and that would cost Rs 20 as well. That's also saved now. So every month I now have about Rs 600 left with me from this. Also, I go to college once or twice a week. Even if I do that four times a month, I end up saving the Rs 200 earlier spent on travel.”

Smriti adds, “When girls get out of the house, travel, and interact with others, they will step out of the atmosphere at home into a wider world. Kejriwal has done a good thing.”

As the bus crosses Delhi’s landmark Signature Bridge, Renuka Mishra gets in after appearing for her exams as part of a course in Modern Office Practice. Daughter of a purchase manager, she has just cleared her class 12 exams and prizes the opportunity that the free ticket has opened up for her especially since she values her independence. I am not scared to travel alone, at least not now. I have always wanted freedom and to be able to travel alone. I don't want to depend on anyone else, and my parents support me in this.”

Would this free travel enhance a sense of freedom among women? Renuka answers thoughtfully: “To some extent, it will enhance the sense of freedom as one does not have to worry about money, one can travel for free. This ticket contributes towards helping you experience your freedom.”

A single mother of a fifteen-year-old boy, Shilpa works in Patient Care. She travels every day from Deoli Khanpur to Vasant Vihar, earning Rs 12,000 a month with which she meets the expenses of her house, including that of her son who studies in class 9. Now, she saves Rs 1,200 every month which is a significant 10 per cent of her earnings. Shilpa says, “This is good for us,” and resolves to pay back Kejriwal with her vote. “He has done so much for us and we need to reciprocate.”

Middle-aged Sudesh works at an RSS-affiliated school and is the mother of three children, two of them girls. She reels off the impact of the step on her and her family. “We feel very glad about the fact that women have been given so much esteem...we see that police is present in the buses so feel that ladies are safe, they can even travel in the night. We feel proud. For the economically deprived, it is even better. Autorickshaw drivers have also been forced to behave. Women are now visible right at the front.” While both her daughters use buses, Sudesh says she does not have to worry about their safety like before. “Now my daughters travel like this too. It's not like earlier when we had to call them and ask where they are. Things are better now. Girls are safe as well.”

Web designer Megha has switched from travelling in the Metro to buses. “Now that tickets are free in buses, we take the bus. We never used the bus before. We are getting a facility, why not use it? Saving money is also there,” she says. The switch has enabled her to save Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 per month. It is nearing 8pm now as she is returning home to Jeevan Park and her concern about her safety persists. She feels neither buses nor Metro are safe for women commuters. “So many cases are reported. Did the rapists get punished?” Her friend, Nisha Sharma, who works as a UX designer and rarely uses the bus, believes that free rides should have been given only to those most disadvantaged. “If specific steps are taken for those who are disadvantaged, that would be better …the fares of buses were not so high that a normal middle-class family cannot afford it. Women are still not safe.”

As the bus finally reaches Uttam Nagar bus depot from where the journey had begun, one can’t help but notice the robust presence of women – still occupying most of the front rows. When we get off the bus, the number of pink passes issued stands at 153. The number of tickets for men is 164. Though the numbers of overall commuters are less compared to weekdays, the free bus ride for women has been a game changer going by the number of women passengers, which almost equaled that of men!