As It Happens

Free public transit for women in New Delhi a way to 'level the playing field': activist

An Indian women's safety activist is praising a move by the Delhi government to make public transit free for women — but says it's just the first step in making the city safer. 

Delhi's chief minister has promised free transit to enhance safety and security

A woman travels in the women's compartment of a metro in New Delhi on Jan.12, 2013. (Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters)


An Indian activist is praising a move by the Delhi government to make public transit free for women — but says it's just the first step in making the city safer. 

Last month, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced free travel for women on Delhi Metro trains, Delhi Transport Corporation buses and cluster buses, which are serviced by private companies. 

According to the Indian news site the Wire, the minister said the project was "being undertaken to enhance the safety and security of women."

It is expected to roll out in the next couple months, but an exact plan on how it will work has not been announced. 

'Extremely significant'

Kalpana Viswanath, CEO of Safetipin, an organization that uses technology to help make cities safer for women, welcomes the move. 

"It's an extremely significant step," she told As It Happens guest host Megan Williams. "And it has also led to a lot of public discussion around the issue, which I think has also been positive." 

Kalpana Viswanath, CEO of the social enterprise Safetipin, says making public transit free for women is a way of levelling the playing field. (Submitted by Kalpana Viswanath)

Viswanath said a horrific attack seven years ago brought the issue of women's safety on public transit to the forefront. 

In 2012, Jyoti Singh, 23, was raped and beaten for hours by six men on a moving bus in New Delhi. She died two weeks later from her injuries. 

"What happened after that, I think ... there's a lot more of public awareness. There was public protest," Viswanath said. 

But even after those mass protests, women still face violence in the streets. Last year, the Thomson Reuters Foundation named India the most dangerous country for women

"There have been surveys done which show that over 80 per cent of women in the city say that they have at some point of their lives faced some form of sexual harassment in a public place," Viswanath said. 

"It could be staring, it could be some kind of groping, or someone passing comments on you."

Women participate in a candlelight vigil to show solidarity with a 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, who died after she was raped on a moving bus on Dec. 16, 2012. (Chandan Khanna/Reuters)

Viswanath says the violence is affecting how women are able to access opportunities in the city. 

She has heard stories of women not taking jobs because they have to work late, or young women not able to go to classes in the evenings. 

Facing criticism

The plan has received criticism for focusing only on women, as opposed to people who earn a lower income and cannot afford transit. 

Viswanath says that while the government should offer subsidies for public transit to make it accessible for everyone, she doesn't think it's unfair to give free transit to women. 

"We do know that women are doubly or triply disadvantaged still in our country," Viswanath said. "We have to address that. You know, sometimes certain very drastic steps may have to be taken to level the playing field."

Women hold on to a railing as they stand in a crowded bus in New Delhi. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

She said that while free transit is not a "silver bullet" that will immediately make the city safer, it will help. 

"When there are more women using public spaces, the public space becomes safer for everyone," Viswanath said.

"If you have different kinds of policy decisions, which have an impact on how women are able to access public spaces, I think over time that will impact safety as well." 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Morgan Passi.