New Delhi: On a winter’s day in early 2018, 23-year-old data entry executive Sheela* had to make a split-second decision when the driver of her shared mini-van ignored her requests to slow down and drop her off: she could either stay on the vehicle--the lone passenger--and risk possible assault, or jump off the moving vehicle and risk injury.

She chose to leap off, injuring her right arm and ankle to ensure her safety from the driver of the gramin seva (rural service) van, a preferred mode of transport in the low-income suburbs of India’s capital. Travelling more than 7 km from an office in Okhla Phase I in southern Delhi to her home in Dakshinpuri, the shared van--Rs 5 per ride versus a minimum of Rs 10 per km for an auto--was the only reliable and affordable transport option for Sheela, in a city with 3,900 buses and an 8-line, 373-km metro-rail network.

Sheela is one of many women who navigate risks on the streets of Delhi while going about their daily activities. The recent announcement by the Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, to make metro and bus rides free for women in the city, has key implications for women’s mobility, which, in turn, is linked to decisions about education, employment and access to public spaces.

Contrary to the expectation that women in urban areas get more employment opportunities, the data show that India’s female labour force participation rate in cities is lower than in rural areas. In the metropolis of Delhi--inhabited by more than 19 million people and teeming with malls, cafes and towering office blocks--no more than 11.7% of women above the age of 15 years are in employment, compared to the national average of 27%.

Wife with toddler walks, husband takes motorcycle

In my research on women and service work in Delhi, young women seeking work raised concerns over safety, accessibility and affordability of public transport. Take the case of 29-year-old Sushma*, a car driver.

After she got married and moved to Delhi from a village in Rajasthan, Sushma was keen to study further and find employment. She had heard about driver-training classes for women and told her husband that she wanted to sign up. However, her in-laws discouraged her, telling Sushma that her place was at home.

Sushma told me their attitude was “a big problem”. They did not give her money to travel, and her husband handed over his salary to his mother.

“I had to always ask her for money,” said Sushma, who completed Class XII after marriage. “From Sangam Vihar, I used to walk all the way to Kalkaji [6 km]. That’s how I’ve made it in this line… If I hadn’t worked this hard, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Sushma attributed her willingness to walk for over an hour to attend driving classes every day to her stubbornness and her desire to do something with her life. Now employed as a driver, Sushma has become a breadwinner for her family.

Similarly, Rama*, 24 years old, told me that she always wanted to “do more” with her life. A community worker for a non-government organisation, Rama, with toddler in hand, commutes 90 minutes each way (12 km), partly on foot and partly on buses from Badarpur near the Faridabad border to Khirki Extension in south Delhi, five days a week.

Although the city’s metro network now extends to Badarpur, Rama says she cannot afford travelling by metro or taking an auto to the bus stop. So, she walks to the bus stop, takes two buses to save a Rs 40 a day auto fare. “I can’t afford that,” said Rama. “So, I leave early. It takes 20-25 minutes with a child to walk--on my own it could be quicker.”

Rama’s husband, a factory worker in Okhla, travels by motorbike. Rama and her husband bought the bike on a loan that they are now paying back through instalments from both their salaries.

Transport is a gender issue

The experiences of women like Sheela, Sushma and Rama, attempting to secure emerging employment opportunities, highlight how the issue of public transport is specifically a gender issue.

While some have criticised the offer of free public transport for women as discriminatory against (working class) men, Kejriwal himself drew attention to the problem of women’s safety.

Sheela jumped off the moving gramin sewa van because she felt unsafe as a lone female passenger. The increased presence of women on public transport will contribute towards making it friendlier for women.

However, the intensified need for reliable public transport for women is not limited to the issue of safety.

Women’s mobility is also restricted by families through financial control, as was the case for Sushma. Further, even when women are able to argue for their mobility, they are likely to have to rely on the cheapest public transport or walk. Men like Rama’s husband, on the other hand, may be able to use motorbikes if their families can afford it.

It is also not uncommon for women workers to have to take children with them to work, given that domestic and caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women.

Last-mile connectivity

The move to remove cost barriers will improve women’s access to transport and thus to employment, education and public spaces. However, alongside making metro and bus journeys free, there is a need to focus on last-mile connectivity to and from metro stations, particularly the reach and reliability of feeder services, such as the gramin sewa, into Delhi’s low-income neighbourhoods.

In my research with young women who live in Dakshinpuri and Khanpur (south Delhi), I found that the gramin sewa was the most common mode of transport. It was introduced in 2010 to reach the urban villages of Delhi, where services of Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses are limited. Although the gramin sewa is not necessarily the most reliable and efficient mode of transport, women use it because it is cheaper than autos, as I noted earlier, and gets them home.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) has announced “multi-modal integration” at 61 metro stations to make available more transport options at metro stations, whether by e-rickshaws, autos, or cabs, by providing them with parking spaces.

While this will ensure better accessibility to the metro network, the costs, reach and reliability of such feeder services can still obstruct women’s access to public transport.

Pranjali*, who found work as a financial assistant in a small office after finishing Class XII, told me how she had to do “up-down every day, in so much rush”.

Minimising the costs of doing such “up-down” every day by providing direct and affordable transport can be a step towards addressing the problems women face in seeking, entering and retaining employment, and, if successful, serve as a model for other Indian cities.

*All names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

(Islam is a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge.)

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