New Delhi: Under the government of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Delhi proposes to become the first city in India, and the world, to offer free public transport to women.

Last December, Luxembourg, with 600,000 people, became the world’s first city to propose free public transport from March 1, 2020. Days ago, from August 1, 2019, Berlin, a city of 3.6 million, made public transport free for children. However Delhi, the world’s second largest city with 29 million people, and growing, pitches the AAP proposal on an unprecedented scale and has provoked debate on issues that range from fiscal prudence to social inclusion.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced the proposal on June 3, 2019, saying it would be implemented within three months. On August 15, 2019, in a public address, Kejriwal said the proposal will be implemented on the city's 5,500 buses--used by an estimated 2.5 million of the city's commuters--from October 29, 2019.

IndiaSpend spoke to the Delhi government’s Jasmine Shah, on how his government proposes to implement its free-travel-for-women programme. Shah is Vice-Chairperson of Dialogue and Development Commission, a Delhi government think tank. He is also on the board of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) as a nominee of the Delhi state government. Edited excerpts:

The Chief Minister announced the policy on June 3, saying it would be implemented in three months. On August 15, he said bus rides will be offered for free from October 29. How are you preparing to roll out the policy?

The implementation modalities will be different for buses and metro.

We are at an advanced stage of finalising the plan for implementing free transport for women on Delhi’s buses. It will be rolled out, as the Chief Minister said, on October 29 [It was placed before the Cabinet on August 29, 2019].

Regarding the metro, we have been holding meetings almost every week with the DMRC on what the implementation scheme should look like--its modalities and timelines. We have given them full freedom in designing the implementation plan, and they have been making detailed presentations to the government. We are hopeful that we should be able to reach a consensus soon. Once it is ready, it will go the DMRC’s Board for approval (which also has five nominees from the central government). We should begin work on the implementation as soon the Board approves it.

What will the scheme’s implementation look like?

I want to stress here that free public transport for women will be an opt-in scheme. It will not work as a ticketless travel scheme automatically extended to all women. For buses, after discussing various options, we think the best option is to issue a special pink-coloured single-journey ticket for free to women upon request. We have arrived at a uniform price of Rs 10 for this ticket (which will be given for free to those women who request it). Women who do not need a free ticket and can afford to pay, can purchase a regular ticket.

For the metro, we are still in talks with DMRC, which has proposed two solutions. One involves a biometric recognition of passengers willing to avail free transport through prior registration. This will involve a change in software and smart cards, and may take a longer time to implement. The other option is to provide pink-coloured tokens over the counter for free to those women passengers only who request for them. This too involves setting up additional counters and purchasing token machines, but has a shorter lead time. The DMRC’s concern is that token purchase and travel should be seamless and smooth, without too much wait time.

How did the idea of offering women free public transport come about?

This policy is among a range of moves to implement the AAP government’s larger vision for public transport and the city. We believe Delhi deserves a world-class public transport system, founded on affordability, reliability and safety. We see such a system as a critical public good, which will have a spillover effect on various areas of life, including the economy, public safety, social inclusion, and air quality.

Since 2017, when the Delhi Metro almost doubled its fares, we protested the hike but did not succeed. Data since the fare hike shows that despite an almost 55% increase in overall network length, daily ridership has fallen from 28 lakh (2.8 million) to 25 lakh (2.5 million). DMRC’s own projected ridership for the completion of Phase III, which is due to happen this September-October, was 40 lakh (4 million) per day. So there is a clear issue of affordability.

Our sense is that that the fare hikes have hit the economically disadvantaged the most, including women, many of whom are financially dependent. So we are proposing free travel for women in Delhi’s public transport as a means to ensure their safety while commuting, as well as a means for empowerment through greater access to job and education opportunities.

Why all women as a category? As your answer suggests, there are disadvantages besides those of gender, and your government should arguably address those too.

If you recall, a couple of years ago, our government was exploring the policy of providing free public transport to senior citizens. When AAP came to power, the Delhi government budget was Rs 30,900 crore, which has now increased to Rs 60,000 crore. So, good fiscal management on our part is enabling us to propose a very forward-looking welfare policy, which will result in positive social and environmental outcomes for Delhi. We are open to expanding the scope of the measure in the future, e.g. for senior citizens, students.

Your government also seems to be making a leap between free public transport and some projected positive outcomes, like more women in the workforce, and reduced air pollution. For example, women being able to access public transport need not mean there are jobs awaiting them at the end of their commute. Or that increased numbers of women on the buses and metro will result in a reduction in air pollution--many of them might not have been using vehicles in the first place. What are the government’s positive projections founded on?

There have been studies in other parts of the world, as well as in Delhi on women, public transport and access. The economist Girija Borker’s research with 4,000 Delhi University women students on the economic consequences of street harassment for instance showed that women’s choice of colleges was adversely determined by the lack of safe and suitable transport. Further, the number of two-wheelers has spiked in the city, suggesting that people are reallocating trips from public to private forms of transport. We believe that this measure will lead to positive outcomes. But once the policy is implemented, we also intend to do our own surveys and studies to understand why women use public transport. After all, this is the first policy of its kind being implemented in any large city globally, so we are bound to have significant learnings once we begin the implementation.

You have said 33% of commuters on Delhi’s public transport system are women. How does the government know that? And how do you see that number changing as an outcome of your policy?

Before announcing the policy, for a week both Delhi Transport Corporation (which runs Delhi’s buses) and the Delhi Metro carried out sample surveys on a large scale to identify gender-wise mobility patterns in buses and the metro. That is how we estimated that women constitute around 30% to 35% passengers in both buses and metro. This comes to about 14 lakh (1.4 million) women per day on the buses, and 8 lakh (800,000) women per day on the metro. All our ridership and financial estimates on the impact of this policy are based on this data. As for daily rides that will be subsidized, we are assuming at present that female ridership will increase at the most by 50% after the introduction of this scheme.

How will the metro and buses cope with increased ridership, including at peak hours, as a result of this policy and with Delhi’s growing population? The existing number of buses falls far short of what Delhi requires, despite the government’s longstanding promises to increase this.

The DMRC’s own projected ridership after the completion of Phase III, which we are approaching now, and on the basis of which it received funding, was 40 lakh (4 million) commuters a day. Which means the system has this carrying capacity. Also congestion during rush hours can be dealt with operationally--for example, by increasing the frequency of trains, and the number of coaches in trains. We are also going to significantly expand the number of buses, which is a long pending requirement of Delhi. By this December, 1,000-1,500 new buses will be added to the existing fleet of 5,500. By December 2020, the target is to add 4,000 new buses, of which 1,000 will be electric buses, and the rest will run on CNG (compressed natural gas). By this month we will receive an in-depth study by the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System (DIMTS), looking at bus route rationalisation, which will help us understand passenger load, origins and destinations, and optimise the design of our bus routes and frequency. Our government’s goal is to provide all Delhi-ites public transport within 500 metres walking distance, and at a wait time of not more than 15 minutes, during the peak eight hours.

The prime architect of the Delhi Metro, E Sreedharan, has strongly opposed free rides on the metro, first in a letter to the Prime Minister, and then in a response to Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia’s letter to him. He says the move will push the Delhi Metro into "inefficiency and bankruptcy" and "a debt trap". His concern--that future governments might default on payments to DMRC--is borne out by several cases around us, as for example with electricity boards, Air India and so on. How do you respond?

Comparing the Delhi Metro to such cases of discoms or Air India is not a correct analogy. We have given the DMRC full freedom to design an implementation scheme and to draft the contract with us, which will satisfy them. For example, for this policy, they can have a separate account for the amount to be given by the government toward buying tickets for women, which the government will have to pay in advance every month. It can propose that it will suspend the policy if the government loses its ability to make these fund transfers.

Our estimate is that we will be buying out 10 to 11 lakh (1 million to 1.1 million) rides per day, once the policy starts being implemented. The Delhi Metro will bill us on actuals, and the government will buy out those rides as an institutional buyer. We are one of the few state governments in the country, which is running a surplus budget. Our estimates show that the scheme should cost the government approximately Rs 1,500 crore annually. Of this Rs 1,200 core would go towards the Delhi Metro and Rs 300 crore towards buses. As I said earlier, good fiscal management on our part is enabling us to expand access to an important public good. All over the world, good public transport systems rely on state support.


The exchanges between E Sreedharan and the Delhi state government

How does your government view Sreedharan’s suggestion that the state reimburse women commuters, instead of making their commute free?

Such a scheme, akin to a direct benefit transfer, comes up against a key challenge--how do you ensure that the subsidy, which say, we transfer to a woman’s account, ends up getting used by the girl or the woman in the family, and for the intended purpose of public transport? There is also the related issue of financial inclusion--women not having bank accounts in their own name and so on. If you see the case of PDS (public distribution system for subsidised food) too, DBT proposals in the country have not gone too far. After exploring various options, we are narrowing in on the ones which I mentioned.

You issued a call for public feedback while announcing the proposal in June. What kind of responses have you received?

We have received over 7,000 responses from the people of Delhi on this proposal. I don’t remember any other policy which has garnered such enthusiastic feedback from the public. A large number of them wrote in to support the measure as something that will enable women in large numbers to go out and access more opportunities. Many suggestions were related to the design and implementation of the policy--for example, having separate travel cards for women, having separate entry and exit gates at metro stations for women, supporting this policy with installation of CCTV cameras and panic buttons as well, targeting only those women who need it rather than all, and on issues related to frequency of public transport and last-mile connectivity.

(Choudhury is an independent journalist and researcher.)

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