In May 2021, the Tamil Nadu government launched a scheme that made public city and town buses (with certain caveats) free for women. While the rides are completely free (with no restrictions on the number of trips per day or month), the scheme is applicable only on ‘white board’ buses. The white board buses are what are known as Ordinary Bus Routes and represent the most inexpensive category of service that halts at all bus stops on a given route. The state government has provided an annual subsidy of Rs.1,200 crore to state transport undertakings to compensate for the fare box loss due to the scheme.
The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has extolled the scheme as an ‘economic revolution’, enabling women to join the workforce. In the eyes of many though, free transport remains a political gimmick. It’s not unusual to find citizens who question why travel should be free; and why just for women. A free travel scheme though is not unlike free health services or free education. Some services are so closely linked to ‘public good’, that the cost they incur is easily offset by the good that they achieve. Public transport is one of these.
In general, women in India struggle to attain financial independence and a promising career. These challenges are multiplied in the case of women from underprivileged communities as they start with little to no education and a higher dependence on men. Much of this is culturally driven. They are also mostly unemployed; and when they do find employment it is within the unorganised sector, earning low wages. In the majority of Indian families, men tend to have access to the household vehicle, while women generally rely on public transport. Considering that the percentage of women undertaking paid work in India is only 21% while the global average is 47%, mobility becomes a life changing factor that could make or break a woman’s access to work opportunities. On the other hand, women who decide to not work outside the house, still rely on public transport to run errands and manage the household. This again incurs a cost. This explains why the Chief Minister has referred to the scheme as an ‘economic revolution’.
But to understand how the scheme is being perceived by those for whom it is intended, the author informally interviewed 30 female bus passengers. Latha, a saleswoman from Medavakkam pointed out that she is able to save up to 1000 rupees per month on transport expenses. Coming from a struggling family, she is now able to put this amount aside for her children’s food and education. In addition, she and her children are able to visit other parts of the city during weekends without having to worry about travel costs. She likes the freedom it gives her and the money saved.
Like in the case of Latha above, we have evidence that free transport for women does encourage more women to access these services.The first free bus scheme in India was launched in Delhi by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in 2012. Data shows that around 3 crore women availed this free bus service in 2021-22. After this scheme, Delhi buses saw a 10% increase (November 2021) in the number of women ridership. In Chennai, data suggests that implementation of the scheme saw an increase in women's ridership from 40% to 61% (since July 2021).
At the same time, women say that just free buses are not enough to get women flocking to public transport. It is important to acknowledge that men and women have very varied experiences and different expectations of it. Poor accessibility, discomfort from poorly maintained buses and risk of sexual harassment in overcrowded buses, are some of the recurring issues reported by women as dissuading them from accessing public transport.
A public transport service that doesn’t cater to the needs of the public is potentially one that could be done away with. Long waiting times, uncertain frequency and overcrowded buses are already contributing to this demise.
Thenmozhii from Kundrathur pointed out that despite the free travel, the poor frequency of these services makes them undependable as a daily commute option. Overcrowded buses make travel difficult and unpleasant. Poonkodi, from Washermenpet says, “They claim MTC buses arrive every 10 minutes, but there is little truth to it. MTC buses arrive sometimes once in 30 minutes or once in 60 minutes”. As arriving at work on time is a basic work etiquette, infrequent buses could easily jeopardise a career.
A few women reported that other fellow male passengers and even the bus staff look down on them because they’re traveling for free. Thamarai, a housekeeper residing in Tondiarpet said, “There is a disdain that we observe since they introduced this free rides for women scheme. We can clearly see bus conductors and fellow passengers looking at us with contempt. What do they think of us? Can’t we afford 6 rupees that we have to go through this treatment every day?”. Few of the women stated that they are not even given the allotted seat in buses by male passengers. “Free travel does not mean we have to lose our dignity in the process of availing a free ticket”.
There is no doubt that many women are benefiting from this scheme. But the above experiences also point out that good intentions don’t automatically translate into effective schemes. While the viewpoint of the policy maker is to provide equitable transportation for women and many women do appreciate the financial relief it offers them, others find free buses uncomfortable, crowded, and inaccessible.
Going beyond simplistic solutions
In India, public transport has always been one of the economical ways to get around. It is also one of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel, consuming less fuel and being less polluting. Despite the obvious benefits, the Comprehensive Mobility Plan for the city shows that in Chennai in 2018, only 28% of the trips were made using public transport such as trains and buses. Delving deeper, we see that between 2008 and 2018 there was a 2.8% decrease in the usage of public transport and a 4.4% increase in the use of private vehicles. This modal shift is the outcome of several factors - municipalities and public authorities prioritising private transport infrastructure; the aspirational status that private transport holds in society (including among government officials); greater access to loan schemes to purchase private vehicles; the lure of the convenience offered by private transport; and the neglect of public transport by authorities.
To make the free bus for women scheme truly effective, the government must solve primary issues that currently plague our transport system. These include addressing first-last mile connectivity issues, enhancing public transport information, building fleet size and improving frequency, creating universally accessible services and prioritising passenger safety. If these basic requirements are achieved, free travel for women will be the cherry on the cake.