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Mobility of women in India is restricted for a host of social and economic reasons. Fare free bus travel will, therefore, lead to economic, emotional, social and health benefits for women.
Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash
‘Shakti’, the scheme which provides fare free bus travel for women, including students and transgender persons, within the state of Karnataka (on non-AC government buses), was launched on June 11, 2023. This has made Karnataka the third state in the country, after Delhi and Tamil Nadu, to offer this service for women.
The scheme was introduced in each of the three states because the government believed that it would be a powerful mechanism for the social and economic upliftment of women, and that the benefits would far outweigh the cost of the subsidy.
The announcement was greeted with joy by vast sections of the female population, but it predictably also attracted the naysayers who thought that “their” tax money shouldn’t be “wasted” on such a scheme and that schemes like this were unconstitutional.
There is a lot of gender disparity in Indian society, and the mobility of women is restricted for a host of social and economic reasons. Fare free bus travel will, therefore, lead to economic, emotional, social and health benefits for women.
In most Indian households which have a vehicle (car, two wheeler or even bicycle), it is primarily used by the male members, which restricts the mobility of women to a great extent. Women, especially women from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are often forced to take up jobs in locations which are close to their residence, which restricts the number of job opportunities available to them.
Fare free bus travel will empower these women to spend their time more productively if they choose.
Fare free bus travel will give women the freedom to move freely within the city, and will reduce their dependence on other family members for their mobility.
Social benefits: SAFETY!
Fare free bus travel will lead to more female passengers in the bus. Since we always feel more comfortable when we are with more people like us, this will increase our perception of safety and security.
After fare free bus travel was introduced in Delhi, women said that travelling by DTC buses had become safer than traveling by private buses. Women also reported that incidents of casual molestation had gone down with the increase in number of female passengers. This is a virtuous cycle, which will eventually lead to greater safety for women.
Hopefully, this will lead to more women switching from private vehicles which they can ill afford to public transport.
Women who go out of the house either for employment or for domestic chores are forced to walk much more than men. Further, for reasons of safety, wherever possible, women prefer walking on large thoroughfares and not on smaller, less crowded roads. This exposes women to exhaust fumes which in turn leads to respiratory ailments.
Fare free bus travel will enable women to avoid breathing the exhaust fumes, leading to better health. Overall, too, if the usage of public transport goes up, it will reduce the number of vehicles with internal combustion engines plying on the road, which will bring down the overall level of air pollution.
It is clear that in a patriarchal society like ours, where women have limited mobility, fare free bus travel leads to greater empowerment of women.
There have been people who claimed that fare free bus travel is un-Constitutional, arbitrary, illegal and discriminatory, and a case was even filed in the High Court opposing the introduction of free fare bus travel in Delhi. The Court, however struck the petition down.
While Article 15 of the Constitution of India specifies that there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any other reason, clause 3 of the same article clearly states that ‘the state can make any special provision for women and children’ and the same will override any other provision. The rationale for the clause was that women have traditionally been an oppressed group, and this would enable the government to introduce laws and schemes that would bring them on par with men. Free fare bus travel satisfies this condition and is therefore constitutionally valid.
Some people who oppose the introduction of fare free bus travel for women claim that they do not want to subsidise the bus fare of women who can afford to pay for it. This was the same argument which was used earlier when the Delhi Government wanted to introduce fare free travel for women- “Why should a woman who drives a BMW be allowed to travel for free in the metro?”
What this line of argument overlooks is the fact that no woman will choose to expose herself to potential sexual harassment merely because she wants to exploit the system. Public transport is not the preferred mode of transport for anyone who can afford to take a private vehicle (except for people who choose public transport for reasons of sustainability), and an economically well off woman will certainly not choose it for the sole purpose of getting a freebie. Yes, in the initial days after the introduction of the scheme, women will avail of the benefit so they can post a selfie on social media, but the bulk of the people availing the scheme will be people who genuinely need it.
Contrary to what the naysayers say, not everybody will grab a freebie solely because it is offered.
While free bus travel goes a long way in ensuring greater mobility for women, it is certainly not sufficient. Unaffordable bus fare is not the only reason why people choose not to use public transport. The punctuality and frequency of bus services needs to be improved, and for this the government has to invest in a bigger and better fleet and more personnel.
Overcrowding is another reason why women shy away from using public transport, especially since overcrowding often creates a condition that aids sexual harassment. Safety and security of women on the bus and at the bus stops is a concern which needs to be addressed immediately. Last mile connectivity is another major issue which may deter potential bus passengers, especially since this often leaves women vulnerable to sexual harassment.
In order to truly make a difference to women, governments have to invest in better fleets, improve frequency and punctuality, address the issue of last mile connectivity and prioritise safety and security.
It is also important that similar schemes be extended beyond women and transgender persons to other vulnerable sections of society- persons with disability, economically backward people, senior citizens.
Contrary to popular belief, free fare bus travel for women and transgender persons is not a political gimmick. It is the first step that leads to greater empowerment of women.
Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...
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