Why The Idea Of ‘Free Ride For Women Commuters’ In Delhi Has Disaster Written All Over It


Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is planning to make metro and bus travel free for women in the national capital.

Here is why the idea is impractical and wrong at multiple levels.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal made news earlier this week by saying that the Delhi Metro and buses operated by the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) and cluster buses operated by the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System (DIMTS) would be made free in a bid to increase women’s safety. While the underlying reason for this rather bizarre announcement – the union territory fared poorly in the recent elections and will elect its next assembly in eight months – is clear, there are many reasons why it is impractical.

For starters, while the DTC comes entirely under the transport department of the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD), the cluster bus scheme (operating under the brand of Delhi Transit) is a public-private partnership between corporations and the DIMTS. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) that operates the metro is a joint venture between the GNCTD and the Centre with both having equal equity in the project. Further, the metro also enters the jurisdictions of the neighbouring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Does the Kejriwal government have the jurisdiction to implement such a measure?

The simple answer to this question is a resounding ‘no’. Unlike other cities, where metro rail operations are handled by Centre-state agencies, Delhi is a unique case by virtue of being a union territory, specifically because it is the national capital.

If one were to take a trip down memory lane to late 2017, the DMRC had then proposed a long-pending fare hike for the system. While the fare revision was the second in the year, the agency had justified it due to the lack of fare revisions post 2009. Kejriwal had written to the Centre terming the fare increase as “unacceptable” and demanded for a rollback to which the Centre responded by asking his government to pay an annuity of Rs 3,000 crore to keep the system running. Despite the huge ridership, the Delhi Metro doesn’t generate enough profits (partly due to the delayed fare revisions) and had until March 2017 taken a loan of Rs 26,780 crore from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

While the GNCTD is free to do as it pleases with the buses since they come under its jurisdiction, both the DTC and DIMTS are posting heavy losses. In 2017, the cluster buses had a revenue deficit of Rs 260 crore, while a survey pegged the losses suffered by the DTC at Rs 1,750 crore, as recent as February 2019.

With these losses, the GNCTD is willing to add an additional financial burden on the network, but at the same time, it is not willing to foot its share of Rs 1,138 crore in the Rs 31,000 crore Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) connecting the capital with its satellite cities, a move that drew sharp criticism from the Supreme Court itself.

Understanding Populism

This proposal is yet another of Kejriwal’s populist promises after free water and power. However, one needs to look at the epitome of populism in India – Tamil Nadu. Bus fares in the southern state were not revised between 2002 and 2011, and when they were, it was a steep 90 per cent increase in fares. In this period, the quality of services suffered heavily due to the bad quality of buses. However, it is pertinent to note that Tamil Nadu’s populist economy is backed heavily by capitalism, and the state is the second largest in terms of gross state domestic product (GSDP).

While bus fares have been on the lower side, free travel was never a promise made per se. All students of government institutions are eligible for a free bus pass and those in private ones get a 50 per cent concession, but the pass is only valid for a trip between their residence and institute.

Further, while fares for ordinary buses are capped at Rs 22 for normal buses, they are more than twice that for express and deluxe buses while minimum fares in air-conditioned (AC) buses starts at Rs 25. In contrast, the maximum fare in an AC bus in Delhi is Rs 25.

While there has been criticism that the Delhi Metro’s fares are higher than that of the bus fares it replaces, one needs to understand the cost of investment for the metro and the very fact that it avoids the most obvious problems that buses faces – traffic. It is for this reason that the Chennai Metro’s fares are far higher than the suburban rail in the city.

All in all, given the Kejriwal government’s tendencies to propose something beyond their jurisdiction and then claim that the Centre isn’t letting it do its work, this too seems to be yet another opportunity.

As for free transit, it will put an additional strain on the already stressed network, mainly because people who earlier had no reason to take public transport will end up taking it for the sake of it.

Now, addressing the issue of women’s safety in public transit

The issue with women’s safety on public transport is not one to be taken lightly. Surveys in the past have shown that women do experience a significantly high level of harassment on public transport. How will free transport help in such a case, is anybody’s guess.

Many proposals have been implemented, including ramping up surveillance of public spaces, improved lighting and the provision of women-only services in the sector with both public and private participation. The DMRC on its part has introduced a slew of measures ranging from increased patrolling, one coach reserved for women to reserved seats in the remainder of the train.

There are other methods to improve the safety of women in public transport. A 2016 study in Bhopal by the WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities made several recommendations that are in line with what the DMRC and Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) are doing, including deploying additional women personnel and making public transport safer by improving allied infrastructure such as well-lit pavements and bus stops. While the study did recommend a discount in travel passes to women, this was done to encourage women to move from informal modes of transport to proper regulated systems such as the municipal bus service. With the killer Blue Line buses having been phased out nearly a decade ago, this should not be a problem with Delhi, given that it is the second richest city in India.

An additional method of improving safety is by operating public transport, especially the metro throughout the night as well. When Transport for London launched nightly services on the London Underground (commonly known as the Tube) in 2016, it was speculated that there would be an increase in crime and anti-social behaviour. A year later, reports showed that crimes at night accounted for as low as 5 per cent of the total crime recorded on the Tube. Stations are fully staffed at night with additional security staff provided. Of course, for such a system to be viable, city administrations will also need to permit businesses to run throughout the night.

Women’s safety is indeed an issue, but it is not one that can be solved by such outlandish ideas, especially when the system incurs such a heavy expense. Even if the union territory administration pays up for this subsidy – which Kejriwal has said it will do – it leaves many other questions unanswered.

If the government was serious about paying heed to women’s safety in transportation, it would do well to pay for the RRTS, thereby allowing women from neighbouring cities to travel safely across the broader National Capital Region (NCR) rather than take the risk of getting into an unregulated mode of transport. After all, it took the GNCTD three years to approve the installation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras across the city after getting Cabinet approval.

Srikanth’s interests include public transit, urban management and transportation infrastructure.