DISCLAIMER: The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
The Delhi Government’s new idea to make public transport free for women is a bold new turn in how policies are framed for women.
Here’s the thing about cities. They’ve been built by men for men. As Sanjukta Basu has written, “women are allowed to venture out in public space, but not really own it.” It’s always men who appear to ‘own’ the public spaces that make up our cities. In Why Loiter, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade make the case for women to simply be seen in public spaces.
Think about it. How often do groups of idling women just sit around chatting at a local tea stall? Or just lounge at a street barricade, wrapped over a railing, whiling away time? These are normal behaviours for men, but considered ‘risky’, ‘improper’, ‘unusual’, or just plain ‘wrong’ for women, depending on your perspective. Women in public spaces – on the roads, in transport, in parks, malls, anywhere, are simply in transit. They are coming from somewhere and headed somewhere else. Why Loiter makes the point that to feel “safe”, what women need is not increased surveillance; but rather a “right to engage in risk”. If being out on the street is “risky” behaviour, then give women the freedom to do it more, the book suggests.
That’s why it’s a paradigm shift to think of policy interventions that encourage the presence of women in public spaces, without adding an increased surveillance caveat. The Delhi government’s recommendation to make all public transport free for women addresses that peculiar challenge. This is not about ease of access to public transport. This is simply about the presence of women. This is about finding ways to increase the number of women on the roads, in the buses, at stations, at parks, everywhere. More women in public is more safety for more women in public.
While it is not disputed that public transport is the life blood of any city, and in an ideal world, all transport would be public and all public transport would be free for everyone; the move to make bus and metro rides free for women is a bold and potentially life-changing one. The criticisms of the idea are many: It’s just a publicity stunt before elections. Who foots the bill on the Delhi Metro and DTC buses for this? Why should only women benefit from free public transport? What about children or senior citizens, if not everyone? It will only encourage women of a certain class or social background who already have access to public spaces. What does this move do to change the real plight of women, who will still have to negotiate patriarchal norms at home and at work?
All of these points are valid.
Even if it is a publicity stunt, if it works to improve the numbers of women in public spaces, I, for one, won’t complain. The money needed for proper implementation of the policy, of course, will have to be coughed up by the government; but surely at least some of that can come out of the funds put aside in the name of women’s safety? As for the class of women that don’t need the subsidy, it has been made clear that those who feel they can afford it, can (and should) buy tickets.
The point about senior citizens and children is well taken, but should it be that until all problems can be addressed, none should be? The same is the argument against the deeper social problems complaint. It is no one’s contention that the patriarchy will be dismantled and all toxic masculinity will be solved in one fell swoop by providing free rides on public transport to women in Delhi; but to say that it will have no benefits whatsoever is, in my opinion, to miss the point.
Think about those women who walk long distances to their place of work because they can’t afford transport. Or those who haven’t been able to afford to ride in the relative ease of the air conditioned Metro. Or those travelling late at night looking simply to get out of a hostile public space. If all of these women see more women around, they will feel safer; less in a hurry to find a ‘safe’ space. Because a space with more women is a ‘safe’ space. Perhaps it will encourage them to hurry less, perhaps even stop for one more cup of tea, or travel that extra ten minutes to meet that other friend.
Even if it takes time, even if the improvement is only marginal in the beginning, even if the cost of free riding women is high (this will only mean it’s working, no?); it is a step in the right direction. Because it is a policy not aimed at trying to cage women into safety. Unlike curfews for women in hostels and more surveillance cameras, it is a policy intervention that aims to encourage women take the liberty of engaging in risk, to loiter. To simply increase the number of women who can be out in the city, travelling or travelling further than before, spending more time in what has always been a male bastion.
This is a significant paradigm shift in policy thinking about women, safety, and indeed, cities themselves. Where the focus is on increasing ‘risk taking’ while not having movement curtailed or being constantly surveilled.
Of course, it’s a small step. And only a first step. There are many more things to do: better lit roads, more toilets and other facilities for women in public spaces, better policing, sensitising police and security personnel about gender issues; these are all things that must be done. But beginning with free public transport for women in Delhi is, in my opinion, a good first step towards them.
Image: Varun Shiv Kapoor via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]