Delhi: "Pehle toh tum [Delhi chief minister, Arvind] Kejriwal ko meri chummiyaan bhejo (send my kisses to Kejriwal first)," said 52-year-old Bala Das. Since January this year, Bala hasn't taken the Metro because it would cost her around half her salary. But after the Delhi government's announcement that rides on the city's Metro and buses would be free for women, she is elated.
Working as a sweeper, Bala has to travel from Jahagirpuri to Munirka seven days a week. "I used to pay Rs 100 a day to reach Munirka via Metro. So, in January, I finally decided that I can't take the Metro anymore and started taking the DTC bus. It would cost around Rs 50 per day — around half of what I used to pay for the Metro," said Bala, "Ab yeh na bus ke paise bachakar kaan ka jhumka khareedegi (She will save the bus fare and buy earrings)," joked Bala's colleague, Rajnandini.
For women in the city, the Delhi government's decision came as a surprise, especially since Metro fares had been increased twice in 2017. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) is reported to have lost around three lakh commuters after the fare hikes in 2017. Kejriwal has assured citizens that the Delhi government will bear the cost of the free rides. However, he also admitted that the precise details of the scheme were yet to be worked out. "We're also seeking suggestions from people, regarding implementation," said Kejriwal.
While the Delhi chief minister might be interested in seeking suggestions from the people, the middle-class seems to be staunchly critical of this move. Twenty-eight-year-old Reeta works in a software company in Nehru Nagar. Reeta feels that women are capable of purchasing their Metro tickets and that they do not require such freebie gimmicks. "What Kejriwal is doing is called 'cheap politics'. Why only free Metro rides for women? Why not men too? Isn't it gender discrimination? What about the loss to state exchequer?" she asked.
The announcement of free rides came after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was defeated in the Lok Sabha elections by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi, reducing its vote share to just 18.1 percent. The announcement is also a reflection on the fact that the party has already started gearing up for the Assembly election in 2020.
A 2017 paper by Brown University PhD scholar Girija Borker, titled Safety First: Perceived Risk of Street Harassment and Educational Choices of Women, found that sexual harassment cost women their economic mobility in Delhi. While the Delhi government has maintained that free Metro and bus rides are a step towards women's safety, the class divide was visible among women from different economic statuses.
Sarojini, 35, who washes dishes at a local restaurant, said that she welcomed the government's decision, and once the scheme becomes operational, she will seek a transfer to an organisation in Mayapuri. "It's hard to travel by bus from Munirka village to Mayapuri. I didn't join a job in Mayapuri just because of the time and money that would be spent. It would cost around Rs 80 and two hours of travel. However, they were offering me Rs 12,000, but you know Rs 2,000 to 3,000 will only be spent on travel expenses." She is also pleased because now she feels her daughter, who is preparing for competitive exams, will not have to face "too many drunk men in buses". She added, "Now we both, daughter and mother, will have an air-conditioned ride." Sarojini's husband also welcomed the decision and said that if he had two votes, he would have cast both in favour of Kejriwal.
While Sarojini was talking to this reporter, an autorickshaw driver commented, "Destroy our means of livelihood and make everything free." Sarojini did not like this comment, however, the auto driver Netrapal is her neighbour. She shot back, "This isn’t destroying your livelihood but a way to stop auto drivers from ogling at women through the rear-view mirror." According to Sarojini, whenever she boards an auto with her daughter, the driver keeps staring at her daughter through the rear-view mirror.
While Kejriwal's decision was being hailed by many, some women felt that the scheme should have been extended to everyone.
"I strongly feel that free Metro and bus rides should not be given on the basis of gender. This is not equality. This is not empowerment," said Puja Rana, a website designer.
"I think it will corrupt our society further. Many girls will leave their homes for various reasons as they don't have to ask for money from their parents and will spend time with their lover and roam here and there," she added. She also pointed out that when the girls ask for money in their homes, it is a sort of accountability, and now there would be no accountability.
The author is a New Delhi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
Updated Date: Jun 06, 2019 14:01:50 IST