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Kejriwal’s idea is not so crazy, after all

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Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s move to make travel in public transport — buses and the metro — free for women has predictably attracted more flak than support. Coming as it does just months ahead of the State elections, it has been dismissed as a populist gimmick.

The plan is no more than a statement of intent at the moment, but it has already kicked off a furious debate, with arguments ranging from reverse discrimination — that the move is anti-men — to waste of public resources to attacking the premise on which Kejriwal pushed the scheme (he had couched it in terms of women’s safety) that simply making public transport free does not enhance women’s safety in any measurable way.

With the BJP-controlled Union government owning 50 per cent of Delhi Metro, doubts are also being cast on whether the Centre will even allow the scheme to come to pass.

A case for subsidy

Subsidised public transport, of course, is almost as old as the idea of public transport itself. Every system of publicly owned and operated public transport system in the world is subsidised to a greater or lesser extent. Even free public transport — a radical form of subsidy, if you will — is not a new idea. In fact, from March 1, 2020, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg plans to make all public transport in the city-state — buses, trams and metros — completely free.

Luxembourg’s plan is premised on one of the principal arguments for public transport — that is the ‘negative externalities’ of the alternative, that is private transport. Luxembourg can be traversed end to end in less than a couple of hours on the highway, but a short drive across town can take nearly the same amount of time because of monumental traffic jams. Luxembourg hopes that by making it free, it can tempt more people into abandoning their cars and catch a bus instead.

Congestion, pollution and carbon emissions are the biggest negative externalities that a shared mass transport system addresses. Another externality is the skewed benefit of public spending which private transport represents. Roads, bridges, flyovers, traffic signalling, and policing systems are all built, maintained and operated on public funds, but benefit individual users owning their transport much more than those using shared or public transport.

But the biggest economic benefit of public transport of any kind, subsidised or otherwise, is that it enables a greater number of people to be productive members of society by engaging in economic activity. Because relatively cheaper public transport exists, a larger number of people can travel a greater distance to engage in jobs, even if they are relatively less paying.

With cities long having outgrown human dimensions — it is simply not possible to cross a megacity like Delhi or Mumbai or Bengaluru on foot, they are an essential pre-requisite to the functioning of cities and urban agglomerations as engines of economic growth.

With more than a third of our population already living in urban areas — developed States like Tamil Nadu are more than 50 per cent urbanised — affordable public transport becomes a fundamental necessity, rather than a welfare indulgence.

The gender angle

Now let’s look at the gender issue. There is plenty of research to show that lack of access to affordable, safe and convenient transport is one of the biggest roadblocks to women participating in the workforce. Delhi, ranked among the 40 wealthiest cities in the world, and with a female literacy rate of over 80 per cent, nevertheless has a female workforce participation rate of 11.2 per cent, according to Census 2011 data, well below even the low national average of a little over 25 per cent.

According to a McKinsey report (The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in India, 2018), India has “one of the largest opportunities in the world to boost GDP by advancing women’s equality —$770 billion of added GDP by 2025 — but this would require comprehensive change.” But more than 70 per cent of this potential addition — over half a trillion dollars — can be achieved simply by increasing women’s participation by just 10 per cent from the current level, McKinsey researchers concluded.

There is more compelling economic evidence of how subsidised public transport in general can positively impact economic growth and development.

According to a study by Chinese researchers (Economic and Environmental Effects of Public Transport Subsidy Policies: a Spatial CGE Model of Beijing by Ping Xu, Weiyu Wang, and Chunxia Wei), public transport subsidies can enhance overall social welfare, regardless of what form the policy takes and that a fare subsidy policy affects employed population distribution only slightly but stimulates residential population diffusion to suburban areas.

According to a study by the Institute for Transportation and Development policy, “Women and girls are close to 50 per cent of our urban population. They comprise only 19 per cent of “other workers” and yet 84 per cent of their trips are by public, intermediate public and non-motorised modes of transport (Census 2011). While 73 per cent of trips by “other workers” (other than cultivators and agricultural workers) in urban areas are by sustainable modes of transport, women and girls’ share is only 14 per cent.

Closing this gender gap is, clearly, a national imperative. Is offering free transport the only or the ideal way? Clearly not.

There is enough evidence to suggest that providing free services introduces a moral hazard, and also reduces a sense of ownership, reducing the quality and efficiency of the service provided over time.

But there are many ways in which the scheme can be tweaked to address these issues. Leakage or wrong benefit delivery can be fixed by using the JAM trinity to generate a unique, digital transport card which can target benefits to those who need it most, and subsidise only to the extent of actual use. A social campaign on the lines of the LPG programme can also help.

But the idea itself is a great one for driving gender equality and women’s empowerment.

It is one our other cities need to look at closely.



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