Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns have placed a triple burden on women and girls globally. They have experienced a loss of earnings and financial insecurity, an increase in unpaid household and care work, and increased domestic violence.

In India, 40 crore men and women informal workers are at the risk of sliding into deeper poverty in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Women informal workers, who comprise 90% of India’s female workforce, have been hit hard. The loss of work and incomes has hurt them at disproportionately higher rates.

In India, the Central government and state governments suspended transport services in varying degrees during and after the lockdown. The advocacy around Covid-19 recovery within the transport sector has focused on cycling and pandemic resilient public transport systems.

Women’s access has been considered to some extent, such as prioritising pregnant women on bus-based transportation. However, these responses have not recognised and addressed the links between the livelihoods of resource-poor women workers and mobility, which is a key to their economic recovery. This gap may be due to limited research and awareness on the gender inequities in transport.

Between October 2020 and March, The Urban Catalysts, funded by UK AID, conducted an in-depth study in Delhi among resource-poor women workers. The study assessed the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown and transport restrictions on the mobility of these women, their livelihoods and persisting and new concerns in public transport due to Covid-19. The findings aimed to contribute to evidence-based gender-equitable transport systems.

What the study found

Travel patterns of poor women workers in Delhi

In Delhi, which has 616 vehicles per 1,000 persons, only 1.8% of resource-poor women have access to a personal vehicle. Work trips constituted 90% of all trips pre-Covid-19 and 99% after the lockdown. This indicates that resource-poor women workers rarely travel for leisure with their mobility being confined to work travel after the lockdown.

Further, 81% of their trips are by buses and 19% are by paratransit vehicles such as autorickshaws, shared e-rickshaws, and rural transport vehicles. Notably, 57% of resource-poor women’s peak hour trips (from 11 am-12 pm and 2 pm-3 pm) are by paratransit, in spite of women in the city being allowed free travel by buses.

Technology to ease public transport leaves poor women behind

The Delhi government has launched mobile phone applications such as One Delhi, which gives users the expected time of arrival for buses and the Delhi Metro. More recently, a mobile phone application called Chartr was introduced to allow contactless bus ticketing to encourage physical distancing in buses. However, only 3% of the respondents are aware of the application and 6% have access to a smartphone. Fewer still, 2%, know how to make digital payments on their phones, making these apps inaccessible to them.

Women e-rickshaw operators earn 28% less than men

The survey revealed that Vahinis or women e-rickshaw operators worked 2.5 hours less than their male counterparts because they have to fulfil household and care duties. Additionally, they carried 27% fewer passengers due to fewer operating hours and being stereotyped as bad drivers.

Vahinis sometimes had to forego male passengers due to their bad behaviour while travelling. They catered to 36% more female passengers than their male counterparts.

A street in New Delhi. Photo credit: Roberto Schmidt / AFP

What can be done

Providing multi-modal travel subsidies for poor women workers

Resource-poor women workers expressed three major concerns that persisted pre-Covid-19 and in the current situation – poor bus frequency, buses not halting for female passengers and the lack of enforcement of seat reservation inside the buses. Paratransit was the next preferred mode of transport for 86% of women, due to reduced waiting times.

While the Delhi government is in the process of augmenting its bus fleet, a multi-modal travel subsidy in the form of a direct cash transfer to poor women is recommended. This will give them the liberty to choose their mode of travel. The direct cash transfer could be initiated with poor women workers and expanded to all women with ration cards over a period.

Bridging the information gap for poor women workers

A free SMS-based service providing real-time information on buses would allow women with access to basic mobile phones to plan their journeys and reduce waiting times at stops.

Encouraging more Vahinis on Delhi’s roads

Women e-rickshaw drivers have made the first step by entering a traditionally male-dominated sector, with the support of organiSations like Self Employed Women’s Association. However, they need targeted government support on multiple fronts in addition to those provided in the Electric Vehicle Policy 2020.

This includes additional financial subsidies for vehicle ownership, procedural reforms to streamline licensing, skill development in vehicle maintenance, and childcare support through creches. Increasing the number of women e-rickshaw drivers will also provide a safer commute for all women and girls.

Partnering with membership-based organisations

Membership-based organisations like Self Employed Women’s Association are already engaged with poor women within informal settlements. They have been a critical support system in situations such as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The state transport department could devise and effectively implement new mobility initiatives by creating a database of and collaborating with these organisations.

Covid-19 has sharpened existing gender inequities in mobility. However, it also presents an opportunity to acknowledge and address the vulnerabilities faced by women workers and support them towards economic recovery.

Rithvika Rajiv is an urban planner who has worked on projects in urban transportation, street design, and gender equity.

Sonal Shah is a multi-sectoral professional with over 15 years’ experience in sustainable transport and city planning with a focus on gender, informality and universal access.

Devangi Ramakrishnan has contributed to this article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UK AID.