Across India, there are cultural expectations that married women should not work and that they should prioritize housework and care work. Photo: AFP / Raveendran

The chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, recently announced a plan to allow free rides for women on the metro and buses run by the Delhi government. This comes a few weeks after Kejriwal’s political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), received a drubbing from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the parliamentary elections. The state elections for Delhi are due in February next year.

There has been a flurry of uninformed and armchair opinions in the past couple of days on the issue of free rides for women on public transport in Delhi. For decades women have been fighting battles globally and in forums such as the United Nations and the World Bank to bring a gender-sensitive lens to sustainable urban transport. A case in point is Sustainable Urban Transport, a project of the government of India, the World Bank and the UN Development Program, which made a comprehensive case for the need to take a gender-sensitive approach to public transport in a detailed report last year.

But in India we still seem to be stuck in the swamp of a social rejection of gender-sensitive measures.

The reservations that I see are largely twofold, and are also quite gendered.

Opposing without data

A lot of men see it as an unjust use of resources to benefit only women, which somehow translates to a net loss for men. I have seen no statistics supporting this view. Some women and quite a few men see this as a pointless and populist measure that will have no affect on safety for women.

So why is it required and how does it help?

The Delhi government has said it wants to see more women using public transport to ease their participation in economic activities and also ensure presence of more women in public spaces. Let’s look at why these outcomes are valid and required.

Under-representation of women in the workforce is both a social and economic loss. A McKinsey Global study in 2015 found that India could increase its gross domestic product by 16-60% by 2025 by simply enabling women to participate in the economy at par with men. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted by the government of India in 2015-16 showed that the proportion of working women in the country had witnessed a sharp decline compared with a decade ago.

The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) released data on India’s quinquennial (carried out every five years) employment survey conducted in 2011-12, which also revealed the same declining trend of women’s participation in the labor force.

India is uniquely confounding in this regard as it shows the trend of women’s workforce participation declining despite a rise in economic growth.

It is also relevant to look at how skewed the urban economic participation between the genders is in India. For example, urban males constitute 16% of India’s population but hold 77% of jobs in the information-technology sector. What this means is that women not only have extremely low and disproportionate participation in the IT workforce, they also hold jobs with lower pay, and the overall participation is decreasing. This remarkably reduces their ability to pay for all public services, including transport.

A recent International Labor Organization (ILO) study shows that 80% women fear physical harassment while using public transport, and limited access to and safety of transport reduce the probability of women’s labor force participation by 16.5% in developing countries.

Fundamental to women’s employment

Hence improving women’s access to safe transport is fundamental to closing the gender gap in employment. Any measure, short-, medium- or long-term, to achieve this needs to be taken. This is not “feminist speak” but plain “statistical speak.”

What the above shows is that the Delhi government’s move is a short-to-medium-term policy measure that will aid in increasing accessibility of public transport for women. The economic benefits will not only balance any perceived losses, but also surpass the subsidy required to make it work.

Second, in GDP terms, the participation and value of women in the workforce is not defined by the middle-class-dominated white-collar sectors. Most women are employed in small and medium-sized enterprises. Hence it is even more important to use affirmative subsidies to level the playing field. Equality in access will only be valid after we ensure equity.

Better safety for women

Finally, does it translate to safety for women in public transport? Yes, it surely does. Making public transport safe for all genders includes a gamut of measures, from the short-term segregation of facilities to long-term social changes. Let’s face it, increased policing, restrictions on women’s work hours and urging social changes have either had extremely limited results or have been counterproductive. Even dedicated buses and coaches in metros have had limited effect on safety and in increasing the number of women using public transport. Such measures reserve only about 20% of space for a potential 50% of the population, and often increase resentment and build overt or passive resistance toward women in inclusive spaces.

What ultimately helps is to increase women’s ownership over public places. Safety and agency for women lie in numbers and economic strength. The more women become mobile, the more they become visible. The more they become visible, the more they can take control of public spaces. Policy measures and government spending will gain strength and social legitimacy as women become significant contributors to the household economy and in the tax regime. This will be a medium-term outcome.

A few words on all the negative opinions regarding the measure. They partly stem from our mistrust in government policy measures, as so many of them haven’t had desired outputs. But they largely come from our deeply entrenched regressive social attitudes toward women and the marginalized, the latest evidence for which is in the Social Attitudes Research India survey covering the states of Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2016. The survey showed that there is a very large number of people who feel that women should not work outside the home. It shows that this measure by the Delhi government alone will not mean that public transport is all of a sudden swamped by women, as is being argued by some.

It will take deeper changes in our attitude. This, at best, is an enabler, which will need other measures like last-mile connectivity, better lighting of public spaces, nursing and sanitation facilities, to bolster it.

Naysayers aside, studies in countries or even states with higher women’s economic participation show that this drives long-term social changes in attitude toward and safety of women and girls. Until then, we need affirmative measures to keep the pressure on.

In the meantime, remember, it is not a compulsory measure but one in which women can exercise their civic sense and responsibility. So if you are a woman who can afford it, then pay for your transport, but don’t block the road for deserving women to access these facilities. And if you are a man or a woman who thinks it is unjust, encourage women in your family and friends to take up jobs, have control over their incomes and request them to pay, instead of using it as another excuse to curb women’s mobility and spending.

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Tanushree Bhowmik

Tanushree Bhowmik is a New Delhi-based development-sector professional working on energy access and socio-politics of gender in infrastructure programs.

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