The Delhi government’s odd-even number initiative to reduce private cars on the roads, which is due for its second phase next month, has made an exception in the case of women drivers. This has been widely criticised as pandering to women but there are good reasons why women on the road should be exempted.
Though the idea of letting only odd or even numbers run on the roads on alternate days is a good one in principle, it has practical implications that puts women in a special predicament in a place like Delhi/NCR.
First of all, finding car pool partners is more difficult for women than it is for men. The pool of working men being much larger than that of working women, a woman will invariably have to look for a car-sharing alternative in her neighbourhood, and there is no guarantee that the men taking the same route as her are trustworthy enough for her to travel comfortably. There are also social aspects. An all-men group may politely shy away from a woman as it may make them uncomfortable.
If a woman travelling from, say, Noida to Connaught Place, has to take a metro, she would have to find a suitable car parking slot in the nearest metro station. Many metro stations have hordes of autorickshaw drivers and suspicious men hovering at the entrance who need to be crossed in order to reach at, say 8pm, a dimly lit parking lot.
Driving all the way home is different in remote suburbs of the city and its satellite towns. Once a woman gets into her car at the office parking lot, until she reaches home she is normally safe. But if she has to break journey at a public parking place, the dark hours increase the threat to her safety.
Our public transport system is a long way from being completely safe as the recent abduction of a Snapdeal executive Dipti Sarna shows. Last-mile connectivity remains poor in many parts of Delhi and its suburban zones and women who may be safe inside the buses and metros would still have to walk through dark streets and desolate crossings before they can reach home. Many women take shared autos and cycle rickshaws back home and as in the Dipti Sarna case there is no guarantee that their drivers are licensed and verified.
Studies show that women who opt for private cars over public transport do so mainly because they feel safer. Forcing women to abandon their cars is legitimate only if the public transport system assures them the same degree of safety.
Finally, women car drivers are a minority. In 2012, a study by automobile companies in India found that only 14% of car drivers were women.
At a philosophical level, it is remarkable that over the decades more and more Indian women have found the social and economic freedom to drive their own cars in a country where being a female user of public spaces is not easy. Public policies need to encourage women’s mobility rather than adding to their constraints, which is why the exemption proposed by the Delhi government makes eminent sense.
Vandana Vasudevan is a researcher in urban studies
The views expressed are personal