The discussion around the Delhi government’s proposal to make public transport free for women is growing louder and sharper. Recently, two important people weighed in on the debate.

First, E Sreedharan, the former managing director of Delhi Metro, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him not to approve the Delhi Government’s proposal. He said that this plan would set an “alarming precedence” for the other metro projects around the country: if they all began to allow some commuters to ride free, the economics of the projects would be hurt.

The second was an article in the Indian Express by Jasmine Shah, who works with Delhi government and is the Vice Chairperson of the Dialogue and Development Commission. He strongly supported the Delhi Government’s decision and suggested that the free public transport plan is part of it initiative to improve the safety of women.

As is evident, the plan by the Aam Aadmi Party government has polarised opinion. But the answer may not be quite so black and white. I am a public transport user by choice, an urbanist by training. I am also a woman. While I support the idea in principle, I have reservations about the key underlying assumption.

Why I support the idea

Sreedharan thinks that subsidy of any kind on the Delhi Metro is bad. However, he ignores that fact that setting user fares is a political decision. This is true not only in India but many other countries – including some of the world’s most progressive countries.

In many countries in Latin America, for instance, transport authorities make the distinction between a technical fare and a user fare.

A technical fare is an average cost of transport to one passenger over a given distance. The user fare, on the hard hand, is what a public transport agency is allowed to charge users. The user fare could be lower, equal to or higher than the technical fare depending on factors such as fuel prices, traffic congestion or even if elections are coming up. However, if the user fare in lower than the technical fare, the government compensates the public transport agencies for the difference in an open manner.

If the Delhi government wants to make public transport free for women, there’s nothing to stop it. Provided that it can compensate the Metro and bus agencies for the shortfall in revenue in a transparent manner, it should consider making public transport free for all users. After all, high-quality public transport could transform a city by allowing residents to access to educational and employment opportunities that they might otherwise have missed. That is why I support the intention of rationalising public transport fares in Delhi and also for women.

Why I oppose the assumption

In his article, Jasmine Shah points out that there is safety in numbers. The underlying theme is that if more women take the metro, all of them will be safer. But this converts the complex issue of women safety into a populist scheme.

Women’s safety rests on much more than just free transport. Already, an estimated 30% of Delhi Metro users are women. It is already considered a much safer system than the other modes of transport. But safety concerns exist right on the edges of the system – at stations, and as women make their way to stations from their homes and offices. Making the metro free will not address these problems directly.

It would make more sense if the scheme was promoted as one that improved women’s access to public transport – and kept safety out of it.

If the free public transport scheme is only calculated to bring the Aam Aadmi Party short-term advantage in the upcoming Delhi election, it will do for women’s safety what the Odd-Even scheme did to air pollution: nothing. However, if the scheme is seriously element of an overall plan to reform public transport then it will nothing be less than a game changer.

The current discussion around public transport pricing is welcome. It is good for the city and its citizens, irrespective of whether women in Delhi ride for free – or are taken on a free ride.

Sarika Panda Bhatt is the Associate Director at Nagarro and a Trustee of The Raahgiri Foundation. Her Twitter handle is @sarikapanda