On Tuesday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal officially launched a new scheme that would allow women to travel on buses in the capital for free. The programme, announced months ago and put into operation this week – with Kejriwal playing the elder brother on a launch date coinciding with the festival of Bhai Dooj – represents a bold attempt at urban policy reform.

Delhi has terrible pollution. Delhi also has a serious women’s safety problem. And for all of the capital’s great infrastructure, Delhi’s bus system is not the best. Kejriwal’s move will have effects on all three of these problems as well as potentially many others.

There is no doubt that easy-to-access and well-connected public transport systems are the only way Indian cities can hope to survive the massive urbanisation that is expected to continue building in the next few decades, with all the attendant problems of massive cities. Yet in most cities, the public transport infrastructure is crumbling, or depending heavily on infrastructure like metro systems which, while useful, are expensive and are unlikely to address the bulk of commuter needs.

Virtuous cycle

Kejriwal’s scheme to let women travel for free on buses does not directly improve the quality of Delhi’s buses. Indeed, their infrequency and unpredictable nature pose a danger to the new scheme. But if the move does drive up the number of women on buses, it should draw additional scrutiny to Delhi’s bus system.

This will hopefully have the added benefits of taking cars off the roads, making public spaces safer (just by virture of having more women outside, and through efforts by the government to post marshals on every bus) and put in place a virtuous cycle that forces authorities to continue improving the bus system.

Of course, all of this depends on how the scheme is implemented. For now, it seems like women will have to get pink tickets from conductors, at no cost. The Delhi Transport Corporation will then be reimbursed, with the government paying it Rs 10 for every trip by a woman. Authorities will have to make sure women are aware of the scheme and how it works, and also that conductors don’t fraudulently abuse the pink ticket system.

Opposition parties and a few analysts have questioned the wisdom of such a move, saying it is a pre-election gimmick, since Delhi goes to the polls early next year. Yet even if it is one, just like the prime minister’s decision to put money in the pockets of farmers right before the Lok Sabha polls, it is a sign that electoral politics is working well.

Not just Delhi

It would also be mistaken to view schemes like this, or the decision to lower the tariffs on Mumbai’s BEST bus system, as fiscally profligate moves that waste taxpayer money. Public transport is a utility, one that serves as the lifeblood of a city. If done well, with easy access and affordability, its gains accrue to the entire city through better productivity and fewer missed opportunities.

When Scroll.in spoke to women commuters about the scheme after it was announced, they said they are likely to save more money, and spend more time outside: both uneqivocally good things for a city. Kejriwal has said that, once the implementation is studied, he hopes to extend the scheme to senior citizens.

Other cities should follow suit. Not in blindly copying Kejriwal’s moves, although cheaper or even free public transport for everyone is a goal that all cities should aspire to. More importantly, a rapidly urbanising India needs much more experimentation at the urban policy level. It is only through moves like this will policies in cities shed old constructs and evolve to be more responsible and useful for citizens.