Free Bus, Metro Proposal Views Women Beyond the Role of Caregivers
The Delhi Metro.
The Delhi Metro.(Photo: iStock)

Free Bus, Metro Proposal Views Women Beyond the Role of Caregivers

A debate has broken out over the recent proclamation of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, which promises to make public transport in Delhi free of cost for all women. The aim is to make public transport accessible to women across socio-economic classes and to encourage mobility of women across the city with the promise of greater safety.

This debate has many facets.

One, there is the outrage by various politicians and supporters of all parties not AAP, who see this policy as a political gimmick to procure votes in the upcoming state elections in 2020. After a dismal failure in the recent Lok Sabha elections, the party needs to make large proclamations to gain voters, and many see this policy as exactly that – a desperate attempt to gain votes by apparently addressing the issue of safety of women in the capital.

Two, concerns about the technicalities of the policy, largely related to how it will impact the state’s fiscal health and existing demand, has also ensued. Some have said that it is something the government cannot afford on top of the already existing subsidies on electricity and water, and how there’s already a huge mismatch between the (high) demand and (low) supply of buses and coaches. Further, it’s worth considering the opportunity cost of the subsidy to be used to fix other pressing concerns such as pollution, or even add more buses and coaches instead of making it free.

Three, what we would like to address and is extremely pertinent, is the polarised response from the general public, the section who is not as concerned with the fine print of the cost and benefit, but feels cheated and is worried about why only women have been targeted through this policy.

Addressing Restricted Mobility

After all, if the concern is to make public transport accessible by removing the financial barrier associated with access, then surely the policy should depend on income levels rather than gender? they ask. The biggest barrier to a policy is often social desirability. Even if economics doesn’t allow the policy to be implemented right now, no amount of idle funds or surpluses in supply would help the policy meet its aims if such desirability is missing.

We have to recognise that this policy is akin to any other affirmative action policy. And as such, it is in response to structural discrimination and historical disadvantage of a group of society in access to a particular service. In this case, it is the recognition that women in Delhi historically lack access to public transport for a variety of economic and cultural reasons, which is exacerbated by concerns for their safety.

While stated as such, this policy is not simply about removing the financial barrier to accessing public transport – but rather, the recognition that women function in their own city and own country with restricted mobility.

We all know that women in India were historically made to stay at home, with many being denied the ability to leave their homes.

What we might forget is that even today, adult women in the country continue to be relegated to their home, performing majority of the house-work including cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and elders. When they do leave the home to meet relatives, or shop at local kirana stores, for example, they might have to ask permission from elders of the household, or their husbands. This is the reality for most women in our country.

A Look at ‘Inclusion’ and ‘Exclusion’ Errors

Poverty or unaffordability of such services is just part of the struggle for Indian women who wish to claim their share of public spaces. This, coupled with fear and safety concerns, women might choose not to go to school, not to work, or choose only such education or occupation opportunities within a certain radius of their homes, or on routes they consider safe – all of which has repercussions for her ability to be equal to men in society.

Even those who recognise these constraints facing women, have raised genuine concerns about the loss of revenue from those women who can afford to pay for public transport (and who already use it) now no longer need to. While the policy lets women ‘opt out’ and continue to pay for fares if they wish to, it is unclear how this will be implemented.

In any welfare policy, where a certain section of the population are targeted, there will be what is referred to as ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ error. Inclusion error refers to people who are ineligible to the policy taking advantage of it or “free-riding”, and would be a waste of tax-payers money. Usually, our reasons for dismissing the idea of affirmative action or the angst against it stems from some (often genuine) story of an inclusion error.

With the knowledge of someone equally economically well off (usually the only form of (dis)advantage that is visible) having gained benefits over you in some sphere makes you question or support your belief why affirmative action is problematic and/or should not exist.

On the other hand, exclusion error refers to the eligible people who are left out of a policy due to various issues of access and implementation – which, in the case of this policy, are those women who otherwise would not be able to access public transport. While we inadvertently concern ourselves with how many people might wrongfully gain from “freebies”, we should really be concerned with (1) what threshold of inclusion error can we afford without threatening sustainability of this policy, and (2) how many people currently excluded from accessing public transport might be able to benefit from this move?

In light of this, a blanket policy that targets all women ‘universally’, does not assume what aspect of a woman’s disadvantage might be preventing her mobility or her access to public transport. This is a positive design that is proven to minimise exclusion error in policy targeting. For those of us who accept the justification that women are disadvantaged in the ways discussed above, the idea that transport should be made free for women can be lauded.

Finally, whether we agree with this exact policy move or not, it is refreshing to see a women's electorate being fought for once on her freedom and opportunities outside, rather than within the household.

Previous policies centered on women have largely focused on helping women in their role as mothers, care-givers or cooks. For India's women to be empowered, independent and included in society on equal footing, physical mobility is only a starting point, and making it the norm in a city might have positive repercussions in the way we think about women’s role in society.

(Karan Singhal works as a research associate at IIM Ahmedabad, and Nisha Vernekar is a postgraduate student at SOAS, University of London.)

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