Recently, Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi has announced free ride to women in Metro rail and buses in the capital city for increasing their safety. Women have been demanding safe travel, but the free ride was never their call. A government can always give sops to its citizen, but linking it to safety enhancement is intriguing.
The Metro is safer; it is manned by the Central Industrial Security Force, has regulated the access and closed-circuit television (CCTV) monitors the entire premise. Perhaps the argument in favor could be that women commuting will shift to Metro. It assumes that they are on the Metro map but this may not be the reality.
The government feels that finances are not an issue and the free rides scheme will cost Rs. 800 crores in just six months. A plan has already been chalked out, and suggestions have been invited from the Public as well.
The Metro and Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) will have to be financially supported as they do not have the money to absorb either the full or partial impact of the sop. This is going to be a continuous drain, not a one-off event. There will be serious challenges to its implementation, especially in the Metro. Will there be separate gates or separate cards? Is there a possibility of misuse through transferability of travel authority? How much will this infrastructure cost? And if the government decides to suspend this sop later, how will the reversal be handled? The Metro Automatic Fare Collection needs major alteration. That will be the likely reality of rolling it out in the Metro. Buses will be, of course, simpler.
A few cities outside India have experimented with the idea. Their beneficiaries have been senior citizens, children, and visitors. The ridership improved manifold; the shift happened from cycling, walking and driving cars. It was a welfare state gesture and the logic was not safety enhancement. But the scheme became unviable and was withdrawn at most places. The cities which adopted had much less population than Delhi. Average incomes also varied considerably. There is no certainty that the outcome will be different for Delhi.
But the basic question remains that If the government wants to allocate Rs 800 crore for the safety of women commuters — who constitute 30~33% of daily riders — how best to utilise it? A few suggestions.
First, introduce a highly upgraded version of electronic surveillance in the city. CCTV cameras have been with us for some time now. Their usefulness is well recognised. The fact of being captured on a camera is a deterrence to a criminal. All this needs an upgrade with the introduction of technologies such as facial recognition in the CCTV monitoring. The 1.5 lakh CCTV cameras that Delhi is likely to get should be able to spot criminals in advance. It may not be instantaneous but will still be of great use. This is not day dreaming, but with only a portion of Rs 800 crore, it can certainly be tried at vulnerable locations such as bus and railway stations. A few countries are using similar technology for issuing traffic violation tickets to erring car drivers.
Second, improve the last mile connectivity. Safety is the greatest casualty here because of lonely travels in dark corridors. Small buses may be introduced with better frequency. Efforts so far have been cosmetic as there is more emphasis at crowd control and traffic regulation at boarding points rather than the safety of women.
Third, the presence of marshals at sensitive bus stops and busy metro stations have a salutary impact. They should not be symbolic.
Fourth, the overcrowding in the Metro and buses must be controlled. The efforts of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation and the DTC have been falling short. Just travel on the blue line to Noida during peak hours to understand what overcrowding means in the Metro. The peak hour frequency must improve. One may not get a seat but should be able to stand on both the feet. Bus infrastructure has to be improved and more new buses must be added. Open door drive in buses must be banned. Allocate more funds here. There should be an emphasis on travel delight.
Finally, an action plan to make auto rickshaws and cabs safer must find a place. Mobile apps have made a beginning but have a limitation as mobile phones are the first casualty when a crime is committed.
The announcement of freebies for commute in the national capital region has raised the issue of women’s safety again. There have been gruesome incidents in the past. It is open to question whether any of these incidents could have been avoided by free Metro or bus rides. For the Raksha Bandhan, freebies are acceptable but women safety in commuting is a far more serious matter. Let it not become another odd-even experiment.
The views expressed are personal