Nobody makes flourishy policy moves quite like the Aam Aadmi Party. The Delhi government’s decision to make public transport free for women is the first of its kind anywhere. While places like Luxembourg and Tallinn and a few small cities are experimenting with free public transport, this is wholly different in scale and intention.
The idea of women travelling free offends many people. It is obviously a red rag to those who object to any special consideration to women, including women-only coaches. Some see it as a cynical freebie ahead of the assembly election. Others point out how it is unfair to make low-income men pay while giving a free pass to affluent women.
But if you’re not ideologically set against this policy, just imagine its full rippling possibilities. Even if only women get to travel free, it will cut transport costs for low-income households, so men gain too. More importantly, it will spur women to travel more, for work and leisure, to claim the city. If women just took up more room in mass transit, filled the streets more, it would change the character of public space.
The two fare hikes in 2017, which nearly doubled rates, had made the Metro pretty much unaffordable for many people, including women. This will invite them to ride again. Even if better-off people with private options are crowded out, it will be more than made up by the new commuters who need it more. Off-peak ridership will rise too. It will widen a working woman’s habitat, let her take up a job further away, let a student roam without worrying about money. This is not just a boost in productivity and fulfilment for these individuals, it is a boost for wider society.
The whole business of becoming a woman is learning your limits, so any policy that lifts these limits is to be cheered. A woman on the loose has been treated as a threat to traditional order, and controlled by an atmosphere of threat. Our public presence has always been sexualised; as Rebecca Solnit points out, a prostitute is called a streetwalker, a woman who breaks sexual rules is described as ‘wandering’ or ‘straying’.
We’re taught to be housebound mice, supposedly for our own safety. We all make our own compromises. I use public transport infrequently, mainly because it is still inconvenient for me, but also because of this ingrained hesitation. I’m a cloistered lady in a carriage, the world flits by like a movie on my window-screen. But the feeling of mingling in a crowd, anonymous and part of a big commonality, is really what it is to be an urban citizen.
Look at our streets, the sheer number of men out there, sitting in parks, hanging out at streetside shacks, biking, driving and taking buses. Women don’t confidently occupy the open road. We travel with purpose, from point to point, or in groups, we don’t linger and relax except maybe in shopping spaces. Obviously, this is not a natural state of affairs. So if public policy pushes against these default settings to increase the presence of women, especially lower-income women, what’s not to applaud?
Well, to begin with, Delhi’s public transport system is too skimpy to bring around this mass mobilisation of women. The bus fleet steadily increased in the Sheila Dixit years, peaking right after the Commonwealth Games, though it was nowhere close to the 11,000 buses needed (a thumb rule is one bus to a 1,000 people). There was an attempt to study travel patterns, and supply services accordingly; a bus corridor was proposed and scuttled. So far, the AAP has not only failed to add buses, a portion of the fleet has also broken down and been stranded, and ridership has fallen in the last few years, at a time when air pollution is an emergency.
There are reasons for the delay. Bus procurement has been difficult, and riven with litigation. DTC tendering had onerous conditions, and it took a while to find space for bus depots. There have been disagreements about whether to go with low-floor buses that accommodate people with disabilities, or more fuel efficient, higher-capacity buses. But either way, public transport needs urgent, systematic attention –and the Delhi government has not committed enough money to bus transport, even as it grandly welcomes women to ride free.
Money is not the only obstruction to easy movement. For women’s mobility to be meaningfully improved, Delhi needs a flourishing masstransit system. This means sidewalks and streetlights, feeder services and minibuses, a full fleet of buses, and an extensive metro network. So thanks for the promise, Aam Aadmi Party. Now please make it happen for real.