CHENNAI: The DMK government, months after winning the 2021 Assembly election, announced free bus rides for women passengers in State-owned buses. The initiative, though well-received among its targeted beneficiaries and other members of the public, equally invited flak from both stakeholders in the State and at the national level.
Since its launch, the scheme has enabled women, especially those from unorganised sectors, to venture for work without having to agonise daily commuting expenditure. And importantly, it motivated more women to enter the workforce to support their families reeling under the pandemic-induced financial crisis.
Meanwhile, State Transport Minister SS Sivasankar also called the scheme a silent revolution. The minister pointed out that since the launch of the scheme, women in the State have made 100 crore free trips till April. And the percentage of women passengers using public buses rose to 61 per cent compared to 40 per cent, noted the minister.
However, major questions raised about the scheme were how dignified it’s for women to travel free and whether the free ride is at the cost of male passengers.
But experts in the field justify the scheme, saying it has its heart in the right place and stressing the importance to study the outcome of the scheme in coming years.
Speaking to DT Next, Sumana Narayanan, senior researcher, Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), who specialises in road safety and its sustainable use, says every time a scheme is introduced, it is common to meet with criticism mainly on political lines. But in the case of ‘free bus rides for women’, the scheme is a fundamental one.
“It is no doubt that women, especially those working in the unorganised sector, have lesser mobility and access to vehicles compared to men. In such cases, government initiatives like this make it much easier for women to venture out of their homes for work and education. This initiative is a vital one when seen from a woman’s point of view,” says Sumana.
Sumana further added, “Men having to pay extra as women are commuting free is factually false. The fare is fixed by the government. One gender will not be penalised for uplift and accommodate schemes for another. Importantly, despite any surge in fare, the public transport cannot function from the revenue box point alone,” pointed out Sumana.
Several women in Chennai and even in remote villages of TN now claim to have rapid access to public transportation due to the scheme. Malliga of Thoraipakkam, who does two jobs in the locality, says she is able to do so only because of free public transportation.
“I have noted down the frequency and timings of free buses in the area. Besides doing a housekeeping job at a firm in Velachery’s 100 Feet Road, I am also working at a tailor shop in Thoraipakkam. And honestly, I am able to juggle between jobs because of free transportation, which is no doubt a motivating factor,” opines Malliga.
Calling for a need to conduct a study on the growth of the scheme, Sumana explains, “Studying the outcome of the scheme is paramount. It is only a sensible mechanism to prove the point of the good scheme and also a primary step to sustain the project for the coming years.”
Subsequently, the study proposed to the TN government should incorporate factors such as access to public transportation among all genders, including transpersons and differently-abled, the need for feedback from after-commuters to evaluate both advantages and drawbacks of the scheme and importantly, collecting data on passenger turnout from specific regions, like rural villages.
Future public transit should be ‘fare-free’
Public mobility is an important factor in accessing education, livelihood and social interaction, which was more evident during the 2020 nationwide lockdown than ever. As it is apparent that revenue generated from passengers alone cannot be used to operate public transport, it is high time for both State and Union governments to consider servicing public transportation for free. This, according to experts, can be achieved by regulating the existing policies on funding and tapping into private vehicle purchasing and licensing.
“Public transportation should be drawn parallel with the Public Distribution System (PDS) as a basic requirement. And gradually moves should be made by the government to make public transportation free for all; of course, by providing top quality facilities to the public,” explained Sumana.
Additionally, when the majority of the public start using mass transportation, it will soon have an impact on increasing carbon footprint, fuel pricing, road accidents, traffic congestion and daily travel expenditure.