The Delhi government announced on Monday that it would roll out a plan to make all public transport in the city free for all women. This would include the Delhi Metro, Delhi Transport Corporation buses and cluster buses.

There has been an avalanche of responses both praising the move as well as questioning its timing and its economic sense. As someone who has spent some years researching women’s access to public space and many years thinking about it, I would not be so quick to dismiss its possible impact on women’s mobility and sense of safety, whatever your reservations.

Research shows that women tend to spend less on commuting than men; they also tend to take many short trips that prove expensive. Women also do the larger share of commuting for household errands. In Mumbai, for instance, working-class women increasingly do not use public transport, much of which has been priced out of their reach. They spend hours walking to work. Those who use public transport often take multiple buses even when a direct metro is available because they are cheaper.

My research conducted in the early 2000s, shows unequivocally that access to public transport is the single biggest factor that facilitates women’s access to public space. In our interviews, we recorded women singing paeans to Mumbai’s BEST buses and local trains. Accessible and affordable public transport was substantially responsible for Mumbai’s reputation as a relatively safe city for women. This was a time when the BEST was still affordable, its service and reach extensive.

What the critics say

The arguments against the move to provide free public transport appear to be primarily of three kinds:
1) This is not equality but discrimination (against men).
2) What we need are subsidies for the poor not only for women.
3) This is an expensive “populist” venture, doomed to failure.

Similar arguments are made against women’s compartments in trains and reserved seats for women in buses. The presence of a special compartment for women is seen as a gesture that indicates lack of equality. I would argue, to the contrary, that what it does is enshrines the idea that women belong in public space – if there is a compartment reserved for women, the institutions that run transport clearly expect women to be there.

I see the move to provide free public transport as having a similar effect. It makes it clear that the government sees women as part of public space via the offer of free public transport. It is also relevant that they suggest that those women who can afford it could pay. This opens up an avenue where citizens are seen as partners in the business of running the city. Women who can pay are invited to be part of a larger venture where the city and its citizens commit to providing all its women with access to the public via free transport.

The women's compartment of a Mumbai train. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
The women's compartment of a Mumbai train. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

While those women who can pay, will hopefully pay, it also means that all women don’t have to wait to buy a ticket late at night and possibly miss a train. I recollect a fair number of times when I reached a suburban railway station in Mumbai late at night for a train, to realise that if I were to stop and buy a ticket, I would miss the next train. I had only about 30 seconds to decide whether to miss the train and wait another half an hour or travel ticketless. Such a move renders this dilemma obsolete.

At a moment when the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai is pulling back on the BEST buses, destroying a public transport system that works, this is an important reminder that a welfare state matters. In the moment of late capitalism, the suggestion of freebies is often a slur, an insult. It is worth reflecting on this affirmative move against its various intersecting contexts.

The question of subsidy

To return to the arguments made against the move, on the question of subsidy, while working class-men would also benefit from transport subsidies, their situation is not the same as that of working-class women. Besides, tax money is expected to provide basic services for citizens. What the Delhi government is doing is nothing less than meeting this requirement.

In addition to these arguments, there is also the general misogynistic rage whenever women are given any services or facilities. This is not restricted to India. On March 18, women travelling on Berlin’s metro, buses or trams paid 21% less than men in an effort to make visible Germany’s gender pay gap. Even this token gesture was widely derided.

In a country, where women’s movements are strictly monitored, often via the careful withholding of money, the idea that women could walk out of the house and into a bus or metro without needing to have a single paisa in her pocket is deeply threatening.

Typically, the Delhi government offers this intervention as an act of enhancing safety. While safety is relevant, it is the access to public space that is potentially revolutionary. If I were the Delhi government, I would make explicit the invitation to women in Delhi who can afford public transport to be part of the revolution of inviting all women into public space.

In recent years, middle-class women have more explicitly sought to claim public spaces for leisure, seen in efforts like Blank Noise, Please Mend the Gap, or the Why Loiter Movement, sometimes critiqued as neoliberal and hedonistic. Here is an opportunity for middle-class women in Delhi to demonstrate that they are truly committed to access to public space, for everyone, not just others “like themselves”.

The presence of larger numbers of women in public space will transform the commuting experience of all women and very likely of all commuters. Larger numbers of women commuting means larger numbers of women in the public. This move holds the possibility of transforming Delhi as a city, making it friendlier, approachable, and more accessible for women.

Shilpa Phadke is an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and a co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets.