Why Delhi - And India - Need Free Public Transport

THE Delhi Government move to offer free bus and metro transport to women is a welcome one for more than one reason.

Affordable public transport is key to safeguarding women's right to mobility and autonomy in public spaces of our cities. Free transport is especially valuable to working class women in these hard times when every penny counts, and the high metro fares deter women from accessing it. A larger number of women using public transport means a larger number of women out in the city - and this, more than any police, makes the city feel safer and more friendly to women.    

Free Transport Is Good - But Delhi Also Needs More Transport  

Free transport for women is not enough to keep women safe if there are not enough buses in the city. Jyoti Singh could be alive today if a DTC bus had been available on December 16, 2012 rather than the illegal rogue bus driven by rapists. The Delhi Government has not procured a single new DTC bus in years and is promoting a privatised PPP model.

The existing DTC fleet is just 3500 buses, far short of the 11000 buses recommended by SC judgements from 1998 onwards till 2017. In Beijing, there are 1205 buses per million people, in Paris, 1783 buses - and in Delhi the number is just around 300 per million - (source - CSE's 2017 'Waiting For A Bus' report).

The Delhi Government needs to walk its talk and make sure DTC has a sufficient fleet of at least 11000 buses, and it needs to stop promoting PPP cluster buses and stop exploiting contract labour in DTC. Permanent, properly paid staff make public transport safer in every way, and benefit both workers and commuters.

How Transport Prices Affect Women’s Lives  

A study by economist Girija Borker found that woman students of Delhi University were spending much more than men on transportation and settling for colleges worse than the ones they qualified for, because of safety considerations. (‘Safety First: Perceived Risk of Street Harassment and Educational Choices of Women’, Girija Borker, 2017)

Shilpa Phadke, co-author of Why Loiter in a recent piece on the Delhi Government’s move, cited research showing that “women tend to spend less on commuting than men; they also tend to take many short trips that prove expensive. Women also do the larger share of commuting for household errands. In Mumbai, for instance, working-class women increasingly do not use public transport, much of which has been priced out of their reach. They spend hours walking to work. Those who use public transport often take multiple buses even when a direct metro is available because they are cheaper.” (‘Mere populism? Kejriwal plan to make transport free for Delhi women could actually transform city’, Scroll, June 07, 2019)

In such a situation, one can easily see how free public transport would transform women’s lives in a big way, especially the lives of working class women.  

Phadke writes, “My research conducted in the early 2000s, shows unequivocally that access to public transport is the single biggest factor that facilitates women’s access to public space. In our interviews, we recorded women singing paeans to Mumbai’s BEST buses and local trains. Accessible and affordable public transport was substantially responsible for Mumbai’s reputation as a relatively safe city for women. This was a time when the BEST was still affordable, its service and reach extensive.”

Safety Is Important, Mobility Is As Important  

Women’s lack of mobility and autonomy is a huge problem across India - perhaps the biggest problem that women face. The National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4) found that just 41 percent of Indian women aged 15-49 are allowed to go alone to the market, to the health centre, and outside the community (NFHS-4, Table 15.13). 26 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men thought that a man would be justified in beating his wife if she went out of the house without telling him (NFHS-4, Tables 15.14.1 and 15.14.2). There is very little variation amongst women of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Castes, and ‘Other’ castes when it comes to being allowed to go out of the house.

It is in this backdrop that Phadke observes, “In a country, where women’s movements are strictly monitored, often via the careful withholding of money, the idea that women could walk out of the house and into a bus or metro without needing to have a single paisa in her pocket is deeply threatening.” So, the outrage being expressed by the right-wing and Hindutva forces for the ‘free transport for women’ move is, in large measure, hostility to the possibility of women’s greater mobility.     

This is why Phadke argues that the free transport policy should not be seen only in terms of ‘safety’: “Typically, the Delhi government offers this intervention as an act of enhancing safety. While safety is relevant, it is the access to public space that is potentially revolutionary. If I were the Delhi government, I would make explicit the invitation to women in Delhi who can afford public transport to be part of the revolution of inviting all women into public space.”

Against Equality?

Some liberals have raised doubts about the scheme on the grounds that 'feminism' is incompatible with women-only schemes, seats, buses, train compartments etc. This liberal notion, which implies that such provisions for women, as well as caste- based reservations, go against 'equality' is flawed because it ignores the structural nature of inequality, where not just individuals but entire classes of people face discrimination and exclusion based on their social and economic position; their gender, caste, class, race identity.

Right-wing opinion, especially Hindutva social media campaigns, say that the scheme privileges ‘elite’ women over working class men. Working class men, of course, could also benefit from free public transport: in fact, ideally public transport should be free for all. But if working class women can travel free, that also means that working class communities and families can travel at less cost. Working class families will be able, perhaps, to afford a trip to Lodhi Gardens or India Gate. And such leisure and pleasure is also a working class right - that is why the 19th century working class movement had demanded “bread and roses too”.

Free Public Transport For All

Apart from buying enough buses and making contractualised DTC staff permanent, metro and bus travel should also be subsidised for all students and for the elderly. Eventually, Delhi - and India should move towards a system of free public transport for all.

This is not an outlandish idea - already, many cities in European countries have embraced free public transport. Dunkirk is one one of the 25 French cities to make public transport free. Dunkirk mayor Patrice Vergriete told the Guardian, “You can’t put a price on mobility and social justice.” How does Dunkirk bear the costs of free transport? It levies a public transport tax on companies with more than 11 employees.

Indeed, transport is a vital aspect of social reproduction. If companies need workers to arrive daily at work, on time, why should they not contribute to the costs of transport required for this? Public transport is not a “freebie” - it, in this sense, part of the wages of the worker.        

Can India “Afford” Free Public Transport

Critics are asking, where is the money to come from, for more buses, for free transport for women, and for subsidised transport costs for students and the elderly, or for free transport for all? As we saw above, levying a public transport tax on companies is one route, already in place in some parts of the (capitalist) world.

Some have suggested that only women with a BPL (Below Poverty Line) card be allowed free public transport. But as we have seen with rations, BPL cards that “target” the poor are basically ways of excluding the poor from welfare benefits. Far better and easier to target the rich: by levying a public transport cess on those in the top income bracket. This means that the rich are identified and targeted for taxes. Measures like BPL cards that 'target' the poor end up excluding the poor from welfare schemes - this is why welfare schemes should be universal, and taxation and cess be used to make the rich pay.

Curb Pollution

Why should the rich pay to subsidise public transport? Because doing so will not only benefit the poor, it will benefit everyone! We all breathe the same air, which in Delhi is dangerously polluted. More buses will mean less pollution.

A bus occupies twice the street space as a car, while it can carry 40 times the number of passengers. According to a study by the Paris based International Energy Agency (IEA), a reasonably-full bus can replace anywhere between 5 and 50 other motorised vehicles. More buses can also mean an enormous saving in fuel and reduction in pollution.

Subsidised and even free public transport is a measure that has yielded good results in many parts of the world in reducing pollution and promoting women’s mobility and access to the city’s public spaces. Indian cities can benefit enormously from emulating such measures.

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