In August, Vandana Rao, 26, got a job offer to be a nurse at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in East Delhi’s Dilshad Garden. It would pay her more than the other offers she had on hand, but Rao, a resident of West Delhi’s Mayapuri, turned it down. “The salary was higher but it was too far a distance for me to travel,” she said. Instead, she took up a job as a nurse at a hospital in South West Delhi’s Janakpuri, a 30-minute bus ride away.
But on Tuesday, Rao said that she felt like she had passed up a good opportunity. Her regrets were sparked by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s announcement on Monday that rides on the city’s metro and buses would be free for women. He said it was an attempt to make the city’s women residents – 30% of whom use the metro – feel more safe.
“The interview went well and my appointment letter was ready but I will not get another chance to go back,” Rao said. Still, Kejriwal’s announcement has also given Rao cause for cheer. “Maybe now I’ll think about roaming around Delhi more often,” she said.
For many women, the decision by Kerjiwal and his Aam Aadmi Party that rule Delhi came as a welcome surprise, especially since metro fares had been increased twice in 2017. That year, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation lost around three lakh commuters after the fare hikes, according to The Indian Express.
The step comes after AAP was crushed in the Lok Sabha elections by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi, reducing its vote share to just 18.1%. The announcement indicates that the party has already started gearing up for the Assembly elections in 2020.
Though Kejriwal said on Monday that the government would bear the cost of the free rides, he admitted that the precise details of the scheme were yet to be worked out. “We are making an effort to start this within two to three months,” he said. “We’re also seeking suggestions from people, regarding implementation.”
Despite this, women commuters told Scroll.in that they were eager for the scheme to be put into operation.
At around 8.45 am, Lissy PM waited for her bus to arrive at Central School bus stop in South Delhi’s Andrews Ganj area. Around her, crowds of men and women squeezed themselves into buses and passed by.
A resident of the satellite city of Ghaziabad, Lissy, 51, wakes up at 5.30 every morning so that she can catch a 9 am bus to Nehru Place, 22 km away. Kejriwal’s announcement, Lissy said, will widen her employment prospects.
“I can think of a new job now because distance is not an issue for me anymore,” said Lissy, who works as a receptionist at a vehicle trading company. “A lot of my friends ended up leaving their jobs because it was too far for them.”
Another commuter said that the AAP announcement would allow her to increase her savings. “I am a widow and I am soon going to retire from my job as a peon at Pragati Maidan,” said the woman, requesting anonymity. “Since my daughter also uses the metro, I will save at least Rs 4,000 a month. Now I can also save enough to shift to a new house in the city.”
For many others, a free metro ride would mean the opportunity to find a job that matches their skills. “I keep thinking about this but something or the other always holds me back,” said Sandhya Jadhav, 34. a resident of South Delhi’s Badarpur.
Four years ago, Jadhav ran a cosmetic shop but she wrapped up operation in a few months. The metro allowed her to travel across the city for work. “I used to carry all the things with me in the metro,” she said. “It was so convenient. My sisters-in-law continue to work. Sometimes, I think about what it felt like to be financially independent.”
Several women said they felt unsafe travelling on Delhi Transport Corporation buses, especially while returning from work in the evening.
Delhi was found to be one of the most unsafe megacities for women out of 19 others, according to a survey released by Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2017. In the survey, 380 experts in cities with populations of more than 10 million were also asked to rate the cities on the basis of women’s access to healthcare and economic opportunities.
Anju, 35, said she picked her workplace only because it was near her home in Mayapuri. “There are too many drunk men in buses,” said Anju, who is a factory worker. “There are also several instances of mobile snatching. I only feel safe if I get a seat, which is rare. I also feel safer when there are at least a few more women in the bus.”
Fears of sexual harassment cost women their economic mobility in Delhi. 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 women applicants weighed the quality of the college they were attending against the perceived safety of the route to that institution. They chose to trade quality for safety.
Many women added that they avoided travelling alone. Anju said that she uses public transport only when she travels with her husband. She uses the metro only once or twice a year, when she has to go back her village in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. “My husband uses the metro more often that I do,” she said.
Similarly, Lissy also added that she does not travel without her husband. “We face harassment almost every day,” she said. “But what can we do about it? We face it. After a point, it is exhausting and we just leave it.”
Jadhav said that she stopped using the buses after the metro started functioning. But even that, she said, did not guarantee her safety. “There are lots of men who stand and touch,” she said. “I will definitely feel safer if I see more women around.”
While Kejriwal’s decision was being hailed by many commuters, some women felt that the scheme should have been extended to everyone.
Deepa, an IT professional, who commutes from South Delhi to Noida daily, said that free services should not be given on the basis of gender. “There is no equality,” she said. “What about men from the lower classes? Maybe they could have halved the metro rates for everyone instead of making it free only for women.”
Another commuter added that this was a “political gimmick” by Kejriwal. “What is the plan to implement this?” asked a 21-year-old student who requested anonymity. “Travelling in the metro is not a safety aspect. Metros do not function at night which is when the question of safety comes in. they should not have given a full waiver. This will impact the middle classes.”
Shruti Wadhwa, 31, a physiotherapist, commutes daily from Rohini to South Delhi. “We do not know if the Delhi metro has enough funds to implement this.”
While Wadhwa added that several women could benefit from this, she said that she would continue to pay for the metro and bus services. “Delhi metro is a luxury for me especially because I have lived in Bombay and travelled in the local trains,” she said. “And when I see such infrastructure I can only imagine the maintenance that goes behind it.”