Arvind Kejriwal's proposal on free Delhi Metro, DTC rides for women misguided; govt should strengthen existing initiatives
On Monday, at a press conference, Arvind Kejriwal announced voluntary free rides in metro trains and buses for women travellers.
Offering a blanket exemption from ticket fares blurs the boundaries between the haves and the have-nots, and burdens the exchequer.
The fare exemption for women on the Delhi Metro may be a misguided idea for several reasons.
Women-centric policies can easily be directed towards women who need uplifting.
The movement for equality at the workplace has to deal with contradictions between demands for gender equality and the need to constantly incestivise women to enter the workplace. Historically, it has been hard to strike a balance between the two. Offering subsidies and incentives has borne fruit, and has proved successful in bringing women into educational institutes and workspaces. This is because it is a more focussed approach aimed at uplifting a section of society. However, offering a blanket exemption from ticket fares blurs the boundaries between the haves and the have-nots, burdens the exchequer and furthers the belief that women are financially inferior.
With less than a year to go for the Delhi Assembly election, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has made a pitch for scrapping metro and bus fares for women commuters. "The government is considering to waive the fare for women in DTC buses and Delhi Metro to encourage them to use public transport in view of their safety," he said at a public meeting on Saturday.
On Monday, at a press conference, Kejriwal announced voluntary free rides in metro trains and buses for women travellers, which is likely to cost approximately Rs 1,600 crore a year. "We don’t need the Centre’s permission for this. The Delhi government will bear the cost," Kejriwal stated.
As of now, on the Delhi Metro, the first coach of the train in the direction of the movement is reserved for women on the Yellow, Blue, Green, Violet, Pink and Magenta lines. On the Red line, there is a common earmarked coach for trains moving in both directions. In other coaches, reserved seats for women with adequate signage are in place.
Reportedly, state transport minister Kailash Gahlot has already held meetings to discuss various aspects of the fare waiver to women in all public transport buses run by the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System (DIMTS), and the Delhi Metro.
However, transport department officials point out that while allowing free travel in DTC buses and cluster buses run by the Delhi Integrated Multi Modal System (DIMTS) may not be difficult, it will be challenging to do so in metro trains.
In 2017, the central government had proposed a two-phased fare hike, which the Delhi government had opposed. The Centre had argued that since 2009, there had been no increase in fares, whereas the input costs for the DMRC has increased by over 105 percent in energy, 139 percent in staff costs, and 213 percent for repair and maintenance. Now, an initiative like the one announced by the Delhi government can severely affect the quality of a world-class public transport system.
The fare exemption may be a misguided idea for several reasons. Firstly, populist politics results in economic blunders. Farm loan waivers are a case in point. The Reserve Bank of India takes a dim view of the loan waiver programme, because it sets a bad precedent on credit discipline. As the book ‘India’s Economic Resurgence: A Modified Paradigm for a Welfare State’ points out, earlier, "states probably had multiple tax avenues to generate resources for handling the loan waivers. With the single tax GST system rolled out from July 2017, states will have to adjust within the budgets or resort to public borrowing to cover the impact of farm loan waivers." Essentially, policymakers float temporary solutions instead of understanding the reasons that cause mounting debts for farmers, such as spending on high-quality seeds or the need to adopt better technology.
Secondly, women-centric policies can easily be directed towards women who need uplifting. For instance, the Delhi government’s Ladli Yojna, under which a girl child receives Rs 11,000 in addition to financial assistance within one year after the birth, as also financial benefits on the commencement of education. The payments are made in the name of the child and are kept as fixed deposits in the child’s name. According to the eligibility criteria put in place, the annual family income of the parents must not be more than Rs 1 lakh. The aim of such a scheme is to reduce gender disparity. This disparity can be seen in Census 2011 data, which shows that the effective literacy rate for men was 82.14 percent, while that for women was 65.46 percent. In the past two years, despite the introduction of eight new sections on the Delhi Metro, the average daily ridership has dropped by over 3 lakh. This may well be attributed to spiralling fares. However, the question remains as to how scrapping the fare only for women will help. Further, it is unclear how the metro authorities would identify the gender of riders.
Several women were sceptical of the move. Shweta, a media professional, asked, "Why has he made this pitch only months before the election, and after the AAP came third in five out of seven seats in the Lok Sabha elections?” Bubbly, a resident of Dwarka Sector 4, said that a small concession would have been far more sustainable than scrapping the fee altogether. Simran Chopra, a working woman and a daily commuter, said the scrapping of fees should be done on the basis of family income and not gender, as several women can afford to pay the fare.
Some of the men were more enthusiastic about the idea. Vishal Kumar, a student, said that the Delhi government is providing a good opportunity for women and will offer them a good chance to save some money. He said that it would uplift women from weaker backgrounds, and should be extended to senior citizens and persons with disabilities as well. Manoj, who uses the metro daily, said that it is a good move and will increase women’s representation in society.
Kejriwal, in his press conference on Monday, had also said that the move will help ensure security. However, most women said they can’t make the connection between reduced fare and security. The Delhi Metro provides CISF patrolling of the platform after sunset hours, and quick reaction teams have been deployed to ensure men do not enter women's coaches. For women, security is a greater concern outside the metro complexes — on the last-mile connectivity systems. As per the DMRC’s website, 149 low-floor buses and 25 standard floor buses are presently operational. The feeder buses, as compared to the metro, have lesser frequency, efficiency and cleanliness standards. Security concerns also exist for travel on cycle rickshaws and e-rickshaws.
In January 2017, the AAP government had come out with a list of 2,980 marshals, consisting of Home Guards and Civil Defence volunteers, who would be deployed in DTC buses to increase safety. The DTC staff at the Dwarka bus depot revealed that the marshals are untrained and since they are in civil clothes, they don't always show up and some are found sleeping in buses.
The Delhi government must check if its existing initiatives are bearing fruit, instead of introducing the new initiative of allowing free travel in public transport for women.
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