NEW DELHI — In June, New Delhi’s state government announced it would do something no city has tried before: making public transportation free for women.
Officials say the objective is to improve women’s safety and make it easier for them to commute to work, as India’s capital has long struggled with a reputation for being one of the worst cities in the world for women. The city has an extensive bus network and a gleaming subway system with more than 231 miles of track, about double that of the Washington, D.C., Metro.
Arvind Kejriwal, the city’s chief minister, said the safety of women was his government’s top priority.
Although a handful of cities in Europe have experimented with making public transportation free for residents, New Delhi would become the first place in the world to make such a policy only for women.
The New Delhi state government says it hopes to implement the proposal as soon as September, but hurdles remain. Although New Delhi runs the public bus network, it shares control of the metro with the federal government, which is run by a different political party.
New Delhi’s poor reputation for women’s safety is one of the main drivers of the proposal. In 2012, the fatal gang rape of a college student on a privately run city bus rattled the nation. A Thomson Reuters poll of gender experts in 2018 rated New Delhi as the worst city in the world (along with Sao Paulo, Brazil) for sexual harassment and violence against women.
The subway is widely considered the safest mode of transport given its extensive security apparatus, including female guards at entry points. It also has reserved coaches for female commuters.
Meanwhile, above ground, many streets in the city are unlit and deserted at night, making walking or being out alone highly risky.
Besides safety, government officials said the free-rides proposal would help boost female workforce participation, an area where India lags woefully behind. The last official census in 2011 showed that only about 11 percent of women in Delhi participated in the workforce, the lowest percentage among major Indian cities.
To find work, women in the city sometimes have to travel long distances from their homes, and the cost of transportation can be a crucial factor.
“This will increase economic empowerment of women,” said Jasmine Shah, the state government official overseeing the proposal. “We are looking at public transport as a public good.”
Internationally, the examples from Europe are encouraging. Estonia’s capital Tallinn made public transport free for all residents in 2013 and is on track to expand the plan to the whole country.
Within a year of implementing the move, Tallinn registered an increase in the use of public transport, although car use did not decline by much. Studies found that public transportation usage rose dramatically for low-income groups, among others.
So far, public opinion on New Delhi’s proposal has been divided. Critics say the proposal is an election gimmick by Kejriwal’s government, which is seeking to return to power in elections early next year.
Other criticisms of the proposal are that it is discriminatory in nature and carries a hefty price tag. One Twitter user said women can pay for their own metro rides and asked for the exemption to be given to “the needy or students” instead. Another commented that Delhi residents wouldn’t “sell our votes for free metro and bus rides.”
E. Sreedharan, the pioneering chief of the Delhi Metro — who is popularly known as Metro Man — wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to scuttle the move. Sreedharan argued that giving free rides to women would “push Delhi Metro into inefficiency and bankruptcy.”
But Shah says the local government will pay the metro authority for the rides taken by women to ensure its operations remain unaffected. Their estimate shows that it will cost the government $217 million annually, a hit the state says it can absorb.
“The total ridership will increase,” Shah said. “Since Delhi government will pay all this, metro’s financial health will in fact get better.”
An earlier fare hike in October 2017 led to a steep drop in metro ridership, a move the state government had opposed.
Experts have differed over the effect of the proposal, but most agree that Indian cities need to formulate public transport policies that are more gender-inclusive.