Now that the Delhi assembly elections are round the corner, it has started to rain freebies.
In quick succession, Arvind Kejriwal has announced a waiver of arrears of water bills upto November 30 and allocated Rs 290 crore for free travel for women on buses (Rs 140 crore) and the metro (Rs 150 crore), ostensibly for the safety of women.
While free travel on buses will begin from October 29, women will have to wait a little longer for the joy of a free metro ride. Of course women will welcome the free rides, for who does not like freebies? But will it really make women safer or will it only make sure that the seats in the assembly are safe for the Aam Aadmi Party?
Nirbhaya was travelling by a bus when she was so brutally assaulted. Would it have made any difference if she had been travelling free?
Women have to face jostling, groping, pinching and other sexual advances in crowded buses just because they are women and this will not cease just because they do not have to pay for their tickets.
Besides, women do not spend all their time travelling by buses or metros, either for work or pleasure and are vulnerable to harassment in a number of places. They are subject to sexual harassment in the office, and even at home from neighbours and relatives; whether they are walking in their own mohallas and neighbourhoods, or strolling in parks, standing in queues for a bus, or strap-hanging in a crowded metro, or in a restaurant or bar, just because they are women.
How many cases of horrific stalking and assault have taken place in public transport and how many in other situations?
Moreover, buses and metros do not go everywhere women need or want to go, and to do that, they need to take other forms of transport. So will all forms of transport be made free for women?
Even to take a bus or metro they may have to walk on dark and lonely streets or take an auto to the bus stop, and that is when they are stalked or molested. They are harassed while waiting at bus stops. Whether lonely or crowded, it does not deter roadside romeos from passing lewd and vulgar comments against them or from making advances.
So how is making bus travel free going to make them safe? So why not openly admit that this freebie is about winning elections?
Women’s safety is not a simple issue and cannot be reduced to simple solutions like making bus travel free. Sexual harassment is a complex issue and the outcome of many factors such as cultural values, media messages, family upbringing, school teaching, examples of elders and leaders, what legal restraints exist and the need for vigilant and sensitive policing, among many others.
Free bus tickets may ensure more money in women’s pockets but will it really ensure their safety ? On what data or other experiments has this decision been based?
It would probably pay better dividends for women’s safety if that Rs 290 crore was spent on better street lighting, especially in narrow lanes, introducing and improving beat policing, reorienting police attitudes towards women, making curriculum changes which teach more respect for women, and ensuring prompt punishment of offenders.
We are living in a fool’s paradise if we think that we can sit back without worry once women get to travel free in buses.
Pushpa Sundar is an author of books and articles on development and issues of civic concern.