Why the Delhi govt’s free-ride plan is not enough
Mamata Banerjee described the Niti Aayog governing council meeting as an unproductive exercise since the government’s think-tank does not really have any financial powers.Updated: Jun 07, 2019, 16:00 IST
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Monday announced that his government is working on a plan to provide free travel to women on public buses and the Metro to ensure the safety of women. Perhaps the chief minister is banking on safety in numbers, just as most women in the city are forced to do. He is right in expecting that free transit may help increase women’s participation in the city’s labour force, which, at 11%, is lower than the all-India urban average of 16% (2017-18 Periodic Labour Force Survey) . A common refrain from women in Delhi is that many do not continue with their education or step out for work because of the lack of affordable and safe commuting options. A large number of working-class women have harrowing everyday experiences waiting for buses that rarely arrive on time, braving rides in shared three-wheelers, or even walking. Their wages do not allow them the luxury of taking the much-safer Metro, especially after the two back-to-back fare hikes. So the free-ride scheme is likely to find many takers. It is important, however, that the Rs 700 crore subsidy to fund the scheme for this fiscal year reaches those it targets since it is difficult to segregate women passengers who can afford to pay the fare from those who need free travel.
Implementing the scheme will be easier said than done because it will require the recalibration of the existing transport system. There are several unanswered questions. How will the scheme be restricted to women living in Delhi when the networks operate across the National Capital Region? How will gender-specific mobility cards and access tokens be redesigned to prevent misuse? Kejriwal has sought two to three months to work out the modalities.
Besides affordability and safety, reliability and convenience are also key concerns for commuters. Most of the problems dogging Delhi’s mass transit system remain unresolved. The Metro network is expanding but feeder buses to Metro stations are still too few. Often, a commuter pays more for the last-mile travel than for the train ride. In Delhi, public buses carry more passengers than the Metro, but the fleet size is at the lowest it has been in a decade. The government has promised to roll out 3,000 new buses by next year — the city will still be 2,479 short — but the exercise to rationalise routes needs to be expedited. Passengers also need real-time information on arrivals, delays, cancellations, and breakdown of service. For this, the Delhi Transport Corporation needs GPS on all its buses, a project that been in the works for three years. If offering free rides is about getting more women to use public services, the government must also focus on building adequate capacity and making the services reliable. Otherwise the plan may end up as tokenism.