Equality has been a pressing issue in India for decades. Gender based discrimination, lack of opportunities and support system, and traditional family values family have long held our women back from attaining their full potential. More than 80% women in India feel unsafe in public places such as bus stops and railway stations, 90% have faced sexual harassment, and only 27% of them make it to the workforce. As the number of women stepping out to work steadily declines, there has never been a more pressing need to push the agenda for equality. And here I am talking about all women and girls.
So when women friendly policies are announced, the first response is to rejoice. However, over the years, most of these policies have focused on offering subsidies and incentives, and barely any have dealt with the root cause of the problem.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced one of the latest subsidies recently, at a press conference where he proposed free Delhi Metro, DTC bus, and cluster bus rides for women in the capital city – a blanket subsidy across all economic sections of women. The intent of this proposed scheme is to provide a safe travel experience for women in the city notorious for being unsafe for women – which, to be honest, is confusing; but more on that later.
Today 30-33% of commuters in buses and trains are women and the subsidy will definitely encourage more women to take public transport. It is a welcome move for women from economically weaker backgrounds who can avail this benefit to travel farther for work without incurring extra expenses on their already tight purse strings. Being a government initiative, this is also a good precedent for other states to follow with their own variants.
Today 30-33% of commuters in buses and trains are women and the subsidy will definitely encourage more women to take public transport.
Not all that glitters is gold
While at one glance the scheme looks promising – after all free public transport is nothing new – there are some aspects of it that could do more damage than good. The unique point of the Delhi Government’s announcement is the intent (safety), and the inclusion of only women commuters. These may be the differences that sink the ship even before it sails.
Keeping aside the logistical nightmares it’s likely to create for the transport department in tracking and ticketing women commuters and the burden on the state budget, there are still several issues with this announcement that need to be debated.
First, only economic provisions are not enough to encourage women to use public transport. Unless there is infrastructure access, these provisions are all but void. For instance, Delhi’s bus fleet is rapidly depleting with hundreds of buses over the average age of 6.2 years and many more set to be decommissioned. As the passenger to bus ratio increases, women may not be able to get a seat – paid or otherwise. It’s the same case for overcrowded metros, especially in peak times.
Secondly, there has been resentment brewing for some time about the perks and benefits provided to women, including reservations. Feminist theories talk about push backs as numbers of women in public spaces, a place traditionally not assigned to women, gain visibility. Cases of harassment and other violations go up. Recently, murmurs of reverse gender bias are gaining strength. This scheme may be setting itself up for backlash from men who would see it as unnecessary entitlement accorded to women.
The scheme paints ALL women in a financially weaker light. That defeats the whole purpose of gender equality. Women are not looking to be more privileged than men but as equal partners at work, home, and in public spaces.
Finally, while it is a positive step in getting more women in public spaces, it cannot be considered a definitive step towards safety of women in these spaces. Making a ride free or accessible doesn’t by extension make it safe. A woman riding alone in a bus is still at risk whether she has paid for her ticket or not; the same goes for commute in the last mile connectivity systems that are unregulated and unmonitored. Unless the scheme addresses critical points regarding safety and security of women, it is not even close to preventing another gruesome case like that of Nirbhaya.
The larger picture
The need of the hour is for the government to take concrete steps and ensure that public spaces are actually safer. Breakthrough has been working towards creating safe spaces for women and girls for several years. In our experience, accessible and safe public spaces have certain structural requirements such as wheelchair access, information provisions for the blind, well lit streets, etc. that ensure they work in the long run. For example, women with disabilities may not face economic problems but will have difficulties accessing public transport. Understanding and addressing these needs is not a matter of single focus initiatives or freebies, but that of concerted action from a holistic perspective.
In my opinion, while coming from the right place, this initiative needs a rethink and a larger debate around its feasibility that includes a larger cross section of the population it aims to empower is needed. A debate that many organisations and activists have been waging for long.
Sohini Bhattacharya is a social change enthusiast who has 25+ years of experience in the development sector. Currently she is CEO & President at Breakthrough, a global human rights organization working in U.S. and India using multi-media, popular culture, leadership development and community mobilization strategies to promote values of dignity, equality and justice. The views expressed are the author’s own.