On a winter’s day early last year, 23-year-old data entry executive Sheela* had to make a quick decision when the driver of her shared mini-van ignored her requests to slow down and drop her off. Sheela could either stay on the vehicle – the lone passenger aboard – and risk possible assault, or jump off the moving vehicle and risk injury.

She chose to leap off, injuring her right arm and ankle to ensure her safety from the driver of the gramin seva or rural service van, a preferred mode of transport in the low-income suburbs of India’s capital. Sheela travelled more than 7 km from an office in Okhla Phase I in South Delhi to her home in Dakshinpuri, daily. The shared van which charged Rs 5 per ride versus a minimum of Rs 10 per km for an auto, was the only reliable and affordable transport option for her. Even though she lives in a city with 3,900 buses and an 8-line, 373-km metro-rail network.

Sheela is one of many women who navigate risks on the streets of Delhi while going about their daily activities. The recent announcement by the Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, to make metro and bus rides free for women in the city, has key implications for women’s mobility, which, in turn, is linked to decisions about education, employment and access to public spaces.

Contrary to the expectation that women in urban areas get more employment opportunities, data shows that India’s female labour force participation rate in cities is lower than that in rural areas. The metropolis of Delhi is home to over 19 million people and crowded in malls, cafes and towering office blocks. But no more than 11.7% of women above the age of 15 years have jobs here, compared to the national average of 27%.

A woman walks home alone, late at night. Credit: Reuters
A woman walks home alone, late at night. Credit: Reuters

No option but to walk

While I was researching women and service work in Delhi, I realised that young women seeking work had to deal with concerns over safety, accessibility and affordability of public transport. Take the case of 29-year-old Sushma*, a car driver.

After marriage, Sushma moved to Delhi from a village in Rajasthan keen to study further and find employment. She had heard about driver-training classes for women and told her husband that she wanted to sign up. However, her in-laws discouraged her, telling Sushma that her place was at home.

Sushma told me their attitude was a big problem. They did not give her money to travel, and her husband handed over his salary to his mother.

“I had to always ask her for money,” said Sushma, who completed Class 12 after marriage. “From Sangam Vihar, I used to walk all the way to Kalkaji [6 km]. That’s how I’ve made it in this line... If I hadn’t worked this hard, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Sushma attributed her willingness to walk for over an hour to attend driving classes every day to her stubbornness and her desire to do something with her life. Now employed as a driver, Sushma has become a breadwinner for her family.

Similarly, 24-year-old Rama*, told me that she had always wanted to do more. A community worker for a non-government organisation Rama commutes 12 km, 90 minutes each way, five days a week. Toddler in hand, Rama partly walks and partly travels on buses from Badarpur near the Faridabad border to Khirki Extension in South Delhi.

Although the city’s metro network now extends to Badarpur, Rama says she cannot afford travelling by metro or taking an auto to the bus stop. So, she walks to the bus stop and takes two buses to save a Rs 40 auto fare. “I can’t afford that,” said Rama. “So, I leave early. It takes 20-25 minutes with a child to walk. On my own, it could be quicker.”

Rama’s husband, a factory worker in Okhla, travels by motorbike. Rama and her husband bought the bike on a loan that they are now paying back through instalments from both their salaries.

In Delhi, only 1% of respondents of a survey said they do not worry if a female member of the household is out any time of the day. Credit: B Mathur/Reuters
In Delhi, only 1% of respondents of a survey said they do not worry if a female member of the household is out any time of the day. Credit: B Mathur/Reuters

Transport: a gender issue

The experiences of women like Sheela, Sushma and Rama, attempting to secure emerging employment opportunities, highlight how the issue of public transport is specifically a gender issue.

While some have criticised the offer of free public transport for women as discriminatory against working-class men, Kejriwal has drawn attention to the problem of women’s safety.

Sheela jumped off the moving gramin sewa van because she felt unsafe as a lone female passenger. The increased presence of women on public transport will contribute towards making it friendlier for women.

However, the intensified need for reliable public transport for women is not limited to the issue of safety.

Women’s mobility is also restricted by families through financial control, as was the case with Sushma. Even when women are able to argue for their mobility, they are likely to have to rely on the cheapest public transport or walk. Men like Rama’s husband, on the other hand, may be able to use motorbikes if their families can afford it.

It is also not uncommon for women workers to have to take children to work, given that child caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on them.

Last-mile connectivity

The move to remove cost barriers will improve women’s access to transport and thus to employment, education and public spaces. However, alongside making metro and bus journeys free, there is a need to focus on last-mile connectivity to and from metro stations. It is particularly important to examine the reach and reliability of feeder services, such as the gramin sewa.

Transport to and from metro stations is also an important factor. Credit: Reuters
Transport to and from metro stations is also an important factor. Credit: Reuters

In my research on young women who live in Dakshinpuri and Khanpur in South Delhi, I found that the gramin sewa was the most common mode of transport. It was introduced in 2010 to reach the urban villages of Delhi, where services of Delhi Transport Corporation buses are limited. Although the gramin sewa is not necessarily the most reliable and efficient mode of transport, women use it because it is cheaper than autos and gets them home.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has announced “multi-modal integration” at 61 metro stations to make available more transport options to and from the station – whether by e-rickshaws, autos, or cabs – by providing them more parking space.

While this will ensure better accessibility to the metro network, the costs, reach and reliability of such feeder services can still obstruct women’s access to public transport.

Pranjali*, who found work as a financial assistant in a small office after finishing Class 8, told me how she had to do “up-down every day, in so much rush”.

Minimising the costs of doing such “up-down” every day by providing direct and affordable transport can be a step towards addressing the problems women face in seeking, entering and retaining employment and if successful, can serve as a model for other Indian cities.

*All names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

Islam is a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend.