Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Why free public transport for women is a move in the right direction?

Arpita Biswas

Ever since Delhi Chief Minister announced his Party’s decision to make public transport free for women, there has started a great deal of debates around it. While AAP is projecting safety and security of women as the primary aim of this policy proposal, many are objecting to it on the grounds that it would impose huge costs on Delhi government’s fiscal health and overcrowd the metro, along with being administratively tedious. Also doing the rounds is the criticism that it is a pre-election gimmick by Mr. Kejriwal, especially in light of AAP’s poor performance in the recent Lok Sabha elections. Though it is not advisable to disregard the immediate political backdrop, can we afford to analyze the proposal and its suitability against just that? Do the potential demerits and implementation hurdles imply it is a botched-up scheme unworthy of sincere attention and attempts?

Contextualizing the policy
The use and abuse of gender norms and biases has been an age-old practice everywhere, and it is well-known that India is no exception. What is under-acknowledged, however, is that there is a significant deepening of the process of “de-equalization of women” around the country in the recent past.[1] And this is due not just to the absence of appropriate policies but also to the implementation of several gender-blind ones. Researchers have found how who-knows-for-whom demonetization as well as the so-called women’s schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, the Direct Benefit Transfer in Kerosene have reinforced gender norms and divide along with heightening violence against women, both in private and public realms. In addition to these, the 2019-20 interim budget has reduced allocations on women-exclusive schemes (such as the Swadhar Greh, the Women Helpline scheme), while increasing funds for other gender-sensitive programmes (like that related to child-care and nutrition) only marginally.[2] As feminist economist Ritu Dewan exclaims, these have together implied higher budgetary commitments on the part of the Centre to cows than women of our country this year, to the extent of 80% to be precise![3] All the more imperative is to view such priorities against the ever-increasing incidence of crime against women in 21st century India.[4]

This is the larger socio-political context vis-à-vis which we should evaluate the need and suitability of the proposed scheme of AAP. Yes, the immediate political motive behind the move cannot be ignored. And yes, if passed, it will cost the Delhi government substantial amount of resources each year. Yet, doesn’t the current milieu suggest that it may prove to be a sensible intervention and that we should welcome it if it can expand women’s access to safe mobility across the city? Perhaps, the more important question to then ask is: can it?

Price incentive right initiative?
The capital city’s notoriety with respect to women’s safety and security is known to all. Even conservative measures indicate that Delhi’s crime rate has escalated to appalling levels, making it the most unsafe for women in the country.

* CR = Incidence of cognizable crimes per 1 lakh of population
Source: Crimes Against Women, NCRB 2001, 2006, 2011, 2016

The 2012 Delhi gang rape case caused a huge public outcry to consolidate public safety and mobility of women. But it hardly brought measures that could alter the male-dominated face of its public spaces.[5] Whether free metro travel for women can bring about a real change depends, to quite some extent, on what the degree of the exclusionary effects of its high cost has been. Calling the Delhi Metro a “prestige project” rather than a “public service”, the transport expert Dinesh Mohan argued that it has never been a feasible conveyance option for families earning less than Rs. 30,000-40,000 per month.[6] This, combined with the noticeable deterioration of (quantity and quality of) employment opportunities and the neglected and depleting DTC fleet, forced a significant proportion of women – mostly self-employed, casual-wage and domestic workers – to walk unsafe slum paths, highways and to bank on private buses and minibuses, shared autos, trucks. The metro fare hike in late 2017 has further worsened the gender composition of metro commuters, possibly pushing a good number of female students, senior citizens, and homemakers to shift to cheaper shared cabs, autos and other means. Rising dependence on such unregulated modes of transport has had the obvious negative impacts on their safety and freedom of mobility.
AAP’s proposed policy in the form of a price incentive can reverse the trend by enabling many women who otherwise find it difficult to afford metro use it. The increased incidence of their visibility and shared experiences can, in turn, make metro a yet safer and liberating space for female commuters. This can come as especially comforting for women riding the metro during non-peak hours that often bring them apprehensions and fear.

To have the intended effects, however, the incentive should be supplemented with several other steps. Improvements in the first and last-mile metro connectivity, stepping up of DTC and cluster bus fleet, lighting up of dark spots around metro and bus stations and other areas are some of them. Together, these can make navigation of the city space a less-harrowing task – increasingly so in times when Delhi is undergoing continuous social cleansing of its central areas and rapid urban sprawl – for its women population.

Intersectional considerations
The complex overlap between class and caste-based oppression and gender discrimination is a ubiquitous truth. The criticism that this policy would further the privileges of Delhi’s upper-class women rather than and/or at the cost of poor male workers misses the point and its underlying dynamics.

Delhi has a shockingly low female labour force participation rate (FLFPR). On decomposing the rate on the basis ofmonthly per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE), we can notice that it is mainly the low and declining FLFPR of bottom 40%households that have pushed thecity’s average to such levels.  

Fig. FLFPR for MPCE-based quintiles in urban Delhi

Source: NSSO, Employment-Unemployment Data, 1993-94, 2004-05, 2011-12

Worsening of domestic work burden, declining employment opportunities and deterioration of quality of work for women have been cited as the most plausible explanations for the low level of FLFPR across income groups. Given that it is really very difficult for women from the poorest households to give up the necessity to look for and engage in paid work, safety concerns and traveling costs (both monetary and time costs) could actually be major factors that restrict them from engaging in the labour market. While this remains an under-researched area, anecdotal evidence warns us that it must not be ignored if the tendency of low FLFPR is to be arrested in the capital and other cities of India.

“Harassment while walking down the street or travelling on a bus is a common occurrence for working women and is exacerbated by the adequate lighting on streets and subways…”(Atluri 2016)

“[After being relocated to Bawana] Women who were earning an average of Rs 2,000 to 3,000 a month as domestic workers are now unemployed, since travel to the nearest middle class colonies, where they could possibly find work involves an expense Rs 20 a day and a journey of at least an hour each way.”(Menon-Sen 2006)

Free access to safer public transport can help these women overcome such hurdles that constrain their work and time capabilities. That can subsequently foster their bargaining power and agency within as well as outside the household. Also, enhancement in their ability to share income needs of families can reduce the extent of such burden from their menfolk’s shoulders and can probably have an overall positive effect on family lives of the masses.

Once again, these possibilities cannot materialize just by making public transport free. Complementary measures, like the ones mentioned above, are crucial to be worked upon and implemented, too. Yet, the proposal is a move in the right direction, a progressive intervention in the realm of spatial politics that can enhance women’s right to their city. I thus feel we should not miss out on the chance of responding to Delhi government’s invitation to share our thoughts on how to make the scheme effective.

Arpita (arpitabiswas@umass.edu) is a doctoral student in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 

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