The Delhi government’s decision to allow women to ride on DTC/cluster buses and the Metro for free reeks of the most dangerous kind of populism—one that is dressed up as serving a larger public good. The Arvind Kejriwal government reasons that this will boost both women’s safety and their likelihood of finding employment and staying employed. To be sure, the ease of commute because of an accessible and wide public transport network is a big factor in boosting women’s employment and, to an extent, provides them security. But, is making the commute summarily free, for all economic classes, the best way to achieve these objectives? As far as the burden on the debt-ridden DMRC’s revenues is concerned, the Delhi government will bear the cost—around Rs 1,600 crore annually.
Census 2011 shows that in tier I, II and III cities, women account for just 22% of total daily passengers; in Delhi, it is a much lower 15%. The Delhi government believes that it subsidising the entire amount charged to women for their travel will bring this number up, with long-term gains for women’s participation in the labour force. However, given how the proposal comes just months before Assembly elections in the national capital, it is hard to see this as anything more than a pre-poll sop. Given that a significant proportion of the women who would likely board DTC/cluster buses and the Metro once the “free ride” policy comes into effect can afford to pay the fares even today, the Delhi government absorbing the loss seems like inefficient use of the taxpayers’ money. There are a host of other issues that affect women’s ease of mobility, for instance, the absolute lack of safe last-mile connectivity from the metro and bus stops. Also, can free-rides for women be assigned a higher priority than, say, adding to the DTC’s fleet which suffers from chronic shortage? While the Kejriwal government says the proposal will be implemented after 2-3 months of proper analysis, at the outset, it seems short-sighted.