By DM Deshpande
The Delhi government has announced that it will make travel by bus and Metro free for women in about three month time. The first response is that, it is more a sop for a state that is going to polls shortly.
The decision has evoked some intense debate in the media. At the outset, it is a unilateral decision that the state, as one of the shareholders along with the central government, is not authorized to take. This has been rightly pointed out by ‘metro man’ E Sreedhara. Then the Delhi government has further tried to make it more plausible by undertaking to foot the bill of an estimated Rs1,600 crores for free transport for women. It is not clear how the estimate has been made. It is difficult to predict how many more women will start using these services after they are made free.
The official explanation of the government is that the move will bring in greater safety for women. The thinking seems to be that if women shift to buses and metro-spaces where there are women already in larger numbers, their safety is ensured. This is not the right positioning on the part of the government. Safety and security of all citizens is the primary responsibility of the government irrespective of the mode of transport they chose to travel by.
Certainly, there are certain benefits of free city transport facility for women. It does create a level playing field and encourages more women to seek jobs in places where wages on offer are higher. As more people join public transport, load on private transport falls; it will lead to enormous savings in environmental and energy costs. The government also feels that there is spare capacity and if it is used it will help in enhancing revenues. All in all, more and better jobs, higher purchasing power and higher demand-all positives of the move to allow free transport to women. In fact, some European states have made public transport free while others have plans to do so in near future. Mostly, they are smaller states, rich and prosperous and generally want to reduce carbon emissions on roads.
But how will this work in Indian context is to be seen? We already have a problem of too many subsidies. As rightly pointed out by E. Sreedhara, this may lead to similar demands from other metros and states. Collectively, it may cause a bigger hole in public finance of various states and even the centre. All freebies distort markets and prices; this one too will do the same. This will be another subsidy that will not help the target audience.
A large part of the female commuters are capable of paying full fare. In fact, they would rather want more efficient service. Second, typically the proposal may not cover those who are at the bottom of the pyramid. For example, women in domestic help are known to travel up to around five kms and mostly not connected by any mode of public transport. Finally, it discriminates and is unfair to poor men and boys.
The larger issue is the choice the elected governments make in public spending. Shouldn’t it be for the larger social good? Health, hygiene and education-shouldn’t they get priority over others? Public transport should be affordable but not necessarily free. It is better to give direct cash transfers to the identified group of needy and deserving people. As it is, there are concessions galore for children, senior citizens and others. Even a ‘concession’ to women is far better than a ‘free’ service. A free public good, research shows, is over consumed and efficiency over a period of time is affected adversely.
Freebies will dent public finances. They are a drain on the exchequer. After a period, they are perceived as ‘entitlements’ and even when it becomes fiscally difficult cannot be discontinued. They must be stopped in the bud itself.
*The writer is in the field of higher education- teaching, research and administration for nearly four decades. Presently he is the Vice Chancellor of ISBM University, Chattisgarh