Walking on the streets alone in the dark has been off limits to me ever since I can remember. Last week, however, I decided to make full use of my new found freedom from parents by taking a twenty minute walk to the closest metro station. It was around 8 in the evening, and everything felt normal until, at one point, I became suddenly and harrowingly aware of the lack of other women on the street. I saw two men walking behind me, and was convinced they were following me. I increased my pace, so did they. I panicked at not having carried pepper spray, called my friend up and began to use all the tactics people had armed me with before moving to Delhi. I then crossed to the other side of the road, slowed down and watched with relief as the two men passed. To think that this 5 minute experience is a daily reality for most women in the city is frightening. And to think that a fear of this, or something worse happening, keeps women from stepping out of their houses at night is even worse. Because by forgoing their right to access public space post a certain time of the day, without a certain kind of company or in a certain neighbourhood women forgo their rights to equal citizenship.
So, when Delhi’s CM, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party announced free travel for women in Delhi Metro trains and Delhi Transport Corporation and cluster buses, I was nothing but overjoyed. However, criticism soon started to pour in from all directions– the already over crowded metros and buses could not accommodate any more people; the scheme was unfair to men who cannot afford public transport; and most commonly, it was a ‘freebie’ given by the party to secure seats in the upcoming state elections, after having performed dismally at the national level. In a video posted by The Wire, it became evident that hardly any of this criticism was coming from the class of women that would benefit significantly from the scheme– women to whom even public transport is a privilege.
One of the most unsafe cities in the world, Delhi’s terrifying rape culture gained global attention in 2012 after the Nirbhaya rape case where a young woman was brutally gang raped while travelling in a bus at night. This was perhaps one of the most extreme instances of the abuse women have to face in public transport daily. According to a report in India Times, the first three and a half months of 2018 saw more than 5 rapes reported in the city everyday. In such a situation, it is imperative to understand that the government’s attempt to provide free transport to women is not merely a means of poverty alleviation that should be available to all, but a specific attempt to make public transport safer for women, who live in constant fear of being harassed, molested, or raped. The logic is simple: free transport will encourage more and more women to use these systems, making them female friendly spaces. To argue that men deserve these privileges too would be misguided simply because they do not share the same concern for safety that women do.
In a patriarchal society like ours, where women, whether earning or not, are almost always financially answerable to the men in their lives, the scheme also comes as an opportunity for providing some level of independence and freedom to women. Being able to use public transport free of cost would allow them to access public spaces and escape situations of abuse and violence without depending on other men. It is frightening to think of the number of women stuck in extremely difficult circumstances of domestic abuse or human trafficking, who are forced to stay there because they lack the finances to physically leave.
While women from lower classes have no option but to go out, walk long distances, or use the cheapest modes of transport to earn a living, there is now a sudden fear surrounding the fact that with the introduction of the scheme middle and upper middle class women are likely to leave their houses despite having no “real” work. We, however, herald the time when women will step out in hordes to do nothing in particular. As Shilpa Phadke says in Why Loiter, “women or men, regardless of our differences, have the right to loiter. When society wants to keep a woman safe, it never chooses to make public spaces safe for her. Instead, it tries to lock her up at home or at school or college or in the home of a friend.” This scheme however, might just be the beginning of inviting more women into public spaces, to wander the streets aimlessly, to sit and chat with their friends, or just enjoy the beautiful day. Women have been locked up for far too long. It is high time they reclaim the outside.
Most claims of metro trains and buses becoming overcrowded come from men and women already availing of these transport systems. While their concerns are valid to an extent, it is important to remember that they come at the cost of the continued harassment of women who cannot afford public transport. When we crib about having to stand all the way through our ride because more women can now access these facilities, let us remember that the alternative for them would either be walking long distances, sometimes at night surrounded by a frighteningly large male presence, or not leaving their homes at all. While it is imperative that the government review its public transport network and expand it so as to make it more accessible, it is also important that we don’t place our minor inconveniences over the health and safety of a large number of women who would benefit from the scheme. Ideally the government should subsidise public transport to make it affordable for everyone, however the scheme stems from the fact that the existing public transport system is already skewed in favour of men, with women forming only 33% of the commuters. Thus, it becomes imperative for the government to specifically tackle the socio-cultural and economic restraints faced by women that limit their mobility. The scheme thus comes with the hope of providing women from society’s lowest rungs access to public transport.
In this light, we must also reflect on what it means for something to be public or state sponsored, as opposed to what we have come to expect from the state. Concerns about the state’s ability to subsidise women’s travel, and about taxpayers’ money being used for providing benefits to ‘others’ have been expressed in large numbers. Moreover, the government was accused of introducing the scheme as a mere incentive to secure seats in the upcoming state elections. In a country that has come to see privatisation as the only viable solution to the nepotism and inefficiency of the state, we seem to have very low expectations from the government about what it can and should do for its citizens. Ensuring the safety of all women is the government’s duty, not a favour. What is called a ‘freebie’ is every citizen’s right; it is in direct opposition to the neoliberal idea gaining ground in the country that propagates the belief that services and spaces belong exclusively to that minority which can afford to pay for them. While it is true that perhaps the most heavily taxed or the richest section of society is not benefitting from the scheme, the scheme merely follows the logic of the progressive taxation method. This method is employed by the country at large to ensure social equity: taxes collected from the rich are used largely to subsidise services for the poor.
This scheme by the Delhi government comes with a potential for women to break out of the patriarchal structures that have for long controlled and restricted their every movement. For a change we have something that is not asking women to hold back for the sake of their own safety, but encouraging them to step out and challenge those who pose a threat. While we recognise that making transport free alone cannot solve all problems– last mile connectivity remains a major issue and dimly lit, deserted streets at night continue to pose a threat– we acknowledge it as a first step to bringing about a change in attitude towards women’s mobility. We see it as having the potential to not only transform women’s lives, but also the landscape of the city, making it far more friendly and accepting of all women, at all times of the day.