Kalia, a driver, from the city of Bhubaneshwar, earns 7000 rupees monthly and supports a family of five. Bus fare (800-1000 rupees monthly) limits schooling for one child, so his son attends while his daughter is denied to have an education.
Lochana, a 65-year-old house help, earns 3000 rupees monthly. Even when ill, the cost of a 60-70 rupee bus fare prevents her from accessing medical care at the hospital.
Sabita, married in an upper-middle-class family, lacks personal funds as a housewife. She's confined to her home unless she seeks money from her husband, needing to justify her personal expenses for her husband's approval.
These real-world anecdotes, originating from different sections of society, all highlight a common issue: the marginalization of women's needs and their limited access to financial resources.
For an extended period, women have persistently faced extensive suppression, both within public spheres and domestic environments. Women have been, in many ways, subjected to domination, with our rights systematically stripped away. Years of such gender disparities and resulting repression ultimately paved the way for the emergence of the Feminist Movement in the late 20th century, driven by a fervent desire for equality. Yet, do you think we are anywhere near equality today?
Women are also underrepresented in the workforce. Women still continue to face significant challenges in accessing education, employment opportunities, healthcare, and political representation. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, women's earned income is only one-fifth of men's, placing India among the bottom 10 globally on this indicator.
And, for a moment, if we set aside the statistics, can we even say that our societal mindset views women as equals?
Women are more relegated to being seen as omens rather than equal humans. The recent incident in Odisha, where a bus refused to let women passengers board first due to the superstition that having a woman as the first passenger brings bad luck, serves as a poignant example of the enduring customs that discriminate and marginalize women.
Every time I try to believe that women are moving towards equality, such incidents serve as a stark reminder of the prevailing biases. It makes me wonder how much longer it will take for society to truly view women as equals.
In such a situation, women and every other marginalized community require additional government support to establish an equitable environment for all. To create a level playing field. After enduring years of social exclusion, achieving social inclusion will demand nothing less than concerted and equal efforts.
One such initiative by the government that I have been keenly following the reactions to is the provision of free travel for women.
I vividly recall the launch of Delhi's Pink Ticket Scheme in 2019. As a college student at the time, commuting nearly 80 kilometres by bus to reach my college meant shelling out 180 rupees per day. And I wasn't the only student in my college commuting such long distances. We would often skip lectures and only attend essential practical classes to save money. This was despite us coming from a lower-middle-class family where we never had to worry about basic necessities like food. Still, the cost of travel remained a significant burden for many of us. And not just education, whether it's for accessing healthcare or employment, one of the major impediments to women is that their access to finance is so limited that they often find public transport prohibitively expensive. This severely restricts their mobility and, consequently, their claim on public spaces.
Looking at the impact created, as per the Delhi government, the initiative resulted in a substantial surge in women's ridership. In the first month of the scheme's launch, there was a remarkable 42% surge in the number of women using buses. Currently, numerous other Indian states, such as Karnataka, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu, have also started similar initiatives. The scheme has been performing well in these states, with reports of increased women's ridership and positive feedback from commuters, especially with safety, as it offers women a heightened sense of security, largely owing to the sheer number of women travelling together. My sense of safety on the bus is inherently tied to the number of women I see aboard.
However, as we champion greater female participation in public spaces, ensuring their safety is paramount. A recent World Bank article highlights gender-biased disparities in our city's mobility patterns, influenced by factors like safety concerns, congestion, affordability, and varied travel purposes. To enhance gender safety in public transportation, authorities must prioritise gender-responsive infrastructure, services, and pricing solutions, including well-lit waiting areas, surveillance systems, staff training, and adaptable fare structures. State governments should gather data to better understand gender-specific travel trends and offer more secure and comfortable travel options for all.
Previous initiatives across various states have prompted questions about the sustainability of the scheme and its effects on the finances of public transport providers. However, we must envision a future where a robust and affordable public transport system serves everyone, beginning with the most marginalized groups: cis and trans women, senior citizens, and students, and eventually extending this benefit to the entire population. Such inclusive access will not only benefit individuals but also address pressing global challenges like pollution, fuel scarcity, and traffic congestion.
With no financial burden of travel, numerous opportunities will become accessible to women. Access to education, employment, healthcare, and all other basic necessities will improve. Overall, the free travel initiative for women in India has been a positive step towards improving women's mobility and is much needed in Odisha now more than ever.
Nguvu Change Leader Prachi Mishra is a passionate advocate for gender equality and safety.