The line that separates Akbar from Tughlaq
The Delhi Government’s proposal to make metro and bus services free for women can at best be wrapped in Sidonie’s famous quote “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.” But, the even before one warps their head around this idea, one can feel a sort of déjà vu with a similar announcement made in late 2016- Demonetisation. Maybe, Mr. Kejriwal has taken a leaf out of Mr. Modi’s book- it’s essential to fail and be foolish, especially if you have to win elections; irrespective of the economic prudence and supportive rationale.
There are four major concerns that the AAP government seem to have not addressed or given much thought to, before plunging into this hyperbole of an announcement.
DMRC and DTC are loss making entities
The Delhi metro incurred a total comprehensive loss of 93 crore rupees in the financial year of 2017-2018, this despite the fare hike in 2017 with an estimated daily ridership of 30 lakh commuters. Therefore, this move would lead to a 30-40% increase in the losses incurred by DMRC while increasing the ridership at peak hours.
However, it is Delhi’s public transportation mainstay of its fleet of DTC buses that would be severely affected. DTC’s working losses at 1750.37 crore rupees is a cause of worry to say the least, the daily ridership has been falling on an year on tear basis and it earns only half of what it spends per bus in a day. While, this backbone of delhi’s public transportation is creaking under financial pressure, this move would not only transfer a significant quantity of its female ridership (which had till now faced a high cost barrier due to the relatively steeper metro fares) to metro but also steal the economic opportunity realizable from the remaining female ridership. This would lead to further losses on every route, already down under due to unscientific planning of routes.
The government can reimburse these corporations for the losses incurred by them; however the Delhi Government is already stretched for funds. The Delhi Government’s fiscal deficit is estimated to be 5,902 crore for the financial year of 2019-20 which is a 756.4% increase from the previous year. Therefore, it is clear that the state government is in no economic capacity to increase its expenditure on a welfare scheme when it has already pledged 38% of its budget to transportation in its 2019-20 budget.
No visible rationale between women’s safety and free public transport
The issue of women safety doesn’t work in a piece-meal setting, it requires a comprehensive ecosystem that is inherently safe. The current move by the Kejriwal government doesn’t recognize that the issue of security is more sensitive at the last leg of transportation which is not covered by the buses or metro. This issue of last mile connectivity where there is no reliable source of transport to reach the doorstep or the route to home is dimly lit or scarcely frequented by people is where women are most at risk. Free rides on metro and buses is not going to solve the issue of unsafe last mile. The only proven nexus with free public transport has been that of environmental conservation as observed in Dunkirk and not of safety.
The issue of safety of women during transportation is not limited to safety inside the vehicle but also depends on safe and accessible first and last mile connectivity, safe passenger facilities – bus stops / interchange and safe boarding and alighting points.
There are alternative and more effective means of providing safety
While surveillance has been the go-to measure for authorities to ensure safety, CCTV cameras alone cannot ensure safety. Women’s safety concerns stem from inadequate and unreliable intermediate transport like rickshaws and numerous empty spaces along the pathways. While, women only services including women security personnel’s presence, employment of female conductors and drivers on mass transit can help improve safety; the larger goal needs to stimulate a more dynamic urban setting that allows commercial establishments to remain open for longer thus extending the ‘active hours; of a city. This would allow a city like Delhi to rid itself of its empty spaces and make intermediate transportation feasible for the service providers as well. Such a system would create a more safer transport ecosystem for not just women but also men.
Exemption should be limited to women from lower income groups
There is a thin line between a foolish scheme and a genius idea, the difference of a small detail between Tughlaq and Akbar; in this particular instance that thin line has been the Delhi government’s proposal to make public transport free for ‘all’ women instead of focusing on providing it for women from ‘low income groups’.
A UN report for ‘building safe and inclusive cities for women’ enumerated the difference in the pattern of usage of public transport by men and women. The report stated how women often “chain” their activities by combining multiple stops and destinations within a single, longer trip as a result of their household and caretaking responsibilities. While, a substantial amount of the working middle class in Delhi, both men and women have increasingly started using cab-hailing services like Ola and Uber; these are unaffordable to the larger working class in the city.
In a typically lower income household it is more often the women who have to undertake the responsibilities of household which results in numerous single-fare trips and consequently higher transportation costs than men in absolute as well in proportionate terms to their income.
Therefore, while the transportation cost remains the same for men and women in middle and upper class income groups, such an exemption to women in this class would not affect a change in her choice of transport that would predominantly prefer to use Ola and Uber due to the ease of use as well as relative safety.
The use of such a subsidy could only pay any substantial dividend in terms of income to women belonging to a lower income group since this is the only group on whom the subsidy would have substantial impact in terms of proportionality with her income. Women from this group would be able to use the public transport more flexibly and consequently earn more.
The AAP government should have restricted this subsidy to the lower income group rather than doling it out as a freebie at the expense of the public exchequer.