The Indian capital city is home to what is arguably the country’s most advanced network of metro rail, including underground rail. As with any public resource in a crowded country with a large number of poor there are competing demands for ownership of this particular service too. In March, a bunch of protesters belonging to the youth wing of the Congress party jumped on the railway tracks and stopped a metro train demanding concessionary fares for students.

The Congress habitually takes credit for the rapid transit system—after all, construction began under a Congress-run Delhi government, as did the launch of the first Metro line. Now, the Congress, with no representation in the 70-member state assembly, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with only three legislators, have been left watching from the sidelines as the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has put out what could be a winner before assembly elections, due early next year.

Earlier this month, AAP chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced his government’s decision to make Metro and bus travel free for all women—a step that could encourage and keep women in work. “Public transport is considered the safest for women and keeping that in mind, the government had decided that... all buses and the Metro will be made free for women," Kejriwal said.

Atishi Marlena, a senior AAP leader credited with crafting Delhi’s education reforms, said only 33% of Metro commuters are women, and that a hike in fares, enforced in 2017 by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation overriding strong AAP protests, has driven women into taking unsafe options such as private buses, ride sharing “or even walking".

‘Unsafe’ in Delhi, often called the rape capital of India, has dangerous implications for women. An average of five women were raped every day in the city last year, according to Delhi police. This figure may need to be unpacked because there was a massive risein the involvement of friends and family in rapes, acts that may not necessarily involve public spaces. Perhaps more relevant are ‘molestation’ figures—there were 3,175 registered cases last year (a large number go unreported because women come under massive pressure not to report sex crimes), which adds up to nearly nine every day.

“This move will help them return to the Metro’s safety," said Marlena. “More women in any public spaces automatically makes those spaces safer for women. This move will help women reclaim public spaces."

In overwhelmingly patriarchal societies such as India and other countries in South Asia, women’s mobility—along with a raft of other entitlements—is curtailed, in turn restricting their job opportunities and, indeed, their right to work. This denial, obviously, hits the poor the hardest.

At the same time, Delhi is a magnet for migrants from other states, and this bustling city’s domestic service is now almost entirely run by women from states such as West Bengal. They include some of the poorest women in India, such as tribals from the hill regions of West Bengal.

Women who would make a pittance on the tea gardens are now often the main earner in their family, working in households in Delhi.

Yet, their mobility is restricted—if not by their husbands or child-rearing needs then by the lack of public transport options. When Marlena talks about women “even walking", it is a clear reference to a desperate safe mobility option. In plush south Delhi, it is common to see working class women in saris walking home to home, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, in a rapid gait in killing temperatures (up to 48 degrees Celsius this week).

These women, many of whom are forced to leave their children in their native village, are the unsung and unrecognized bedrock of the roaring economic engine that is India’s cities. Mostly, they are allowed no more than two days off a month, and get no increment or other allowances. When they go home to their children and family, they have to arrange for a substitute worker. “Please remember, I want this job back when I return," is always the half-pleading condition they leave with—an indicator of the fragility of their life in the big city. But it is not only the economically marginalized who will benefit from the AAP government move. A young female journalist, who takes the Metro every day to work, said young women do not get groped in the Metro, possibly because coaches are well-lit. In addition, every train has a separate coach for women—a safeguard against molestation that buses or shared travel do not offer.

Nevertheless, the AAP government decision, which is likely to cost around `1,600 crore this year, has already come under criticism from the opposition BJP in Delhi. “There are two types of syndrome. One is Broken Window economics and the other is Broken Window fraud. Before announcement of free-ride for women there should first be buses for this," Union urban development minister Hardeep Puri was quoted as saying by PTI news agency.

“Kejriwal has a problem of a different kind. He gives a full-page advertisement, announcing that the scheme will start in next two-three months, but they don’t have any proposal for it."

Puri’s broken window economics is a reference to a parable from the stable of the French libertarian economist Frederic Bastiat, meant to illustrate the point that destruction doesn’t work in economics (if you break a window pane in your father’s house, it doesn’t necessarily mean jobs for the glazier and the wider economy—it reduces your father’s disposable income and opportunity costs).

Rhetoric aside, the Union government cannot afford to ignore the underlying potential benefits of this move: as a recent Mint report shows, female labour force participation rate (LFPR, defined as women above 15 years of age either in work or looking for work) is the 10th lowest in the world.

India’s female LFPR fell to an abysmal 23.3% in 2017-18. And the nine countries with a worse record are Egypt, Morocco, Somalia, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Among urban women who do work in India, domestic cleaning work is the second most common profession after textiles-related jobs, government data shows.

The Kejriwal government says it doesn’t need the centre’s permission to introduce the decision. But in politically charged Delhi, where the state government has a difficult and tense relationship with the BJP-led central government, nothing is clear-cut. Politics trumps all in India’s capital city, and development initiatives can be buried under mountains of unsigned permissions.

That, at the end of the day, is the real danger to the army of unorganized struggling women domestic workers of Delhi—not the fanciful theories of 19th century European economists.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

Close