A small step for women, a leap for the nation

More women are needed in the workforce for the nation to realise its growth potential. Making public transport free for women can have a virtuous effect on all—in more ways than one.
Express Illustration| Soumyadip Sinha)
Express Illustration| Soumyadip Sinha)

The role of women in the workforce has become increasingly important in India. While our nation strives for growth and development, it faces a pressing issue—the falling labour force participation among women. Increasing women in the workforce is key to a thriving economy.

According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey for 2021-22, the labour force participation rate (LFPR) of women in the age group of fifteen to fifty-nine was only 29.4 percent, but for men, it stood at 80.7 percent. This huge gap, which is influenced by a number of socio-cultural and economic factors, not only restricts women’s economic independence but it stops the country’s economy from realising its full potential.

Shalom Gauri, an assistant archivist at the QAMRA Archival Project at NLSIU Bengaluru, has shown that one aspect that contributes to the low female LFPR is women’s preference for a workspace closer to home. Studies suggest that since women have to bear the sole responsibility of household chores and have graver safety concerns, they prefer to work near their homes and tend to make multiple trips to work. Therefore, offering free public transport to women can increase their participation as they would not have to worry about the economic implications of their frequent travel. According to a 2015 McKinsey global study, India can boost its GDP by 16 percent by 2025 if women’s participation in the economy is on par with men’s.

Offering free public transport will not just encourage women to join the workforce but also result in increased disposable income. This may nudge women to spend on leisure activities, entertainment and personal care, stimulating various sectors of the economy. Increased ridership and travel for activities like shopping and leisure lead to higher commodity demand and goods consumption. This would also foster gender inclusivity in workspaces, improving the overall economic well-being of women. Moreover, free-fare public transport for women would also contribute to environmental sustainability and societal progress.

Promoting free bus travel for women has substantial environmental benefits. If women opt for public transportation, there will be fewer individual cars and less congestion on the road, resulting in lower carbon emissions and decreased air pollution. Research from around the world shows that public buses are generally more fuel-efficient and eco-friendlier than private cars.

Reduced emissions contribute to improved air quality, which is vital for public health. Cleaner air means fewer respiratory illnesses and reduced healthcare costs for the government.Enhanced urban sustainability is another outcome, as reduced traffic congestion saves time for commuters and reduces emissions. Less demand for private vehicle parking can free up urban land for green spaces and sustainable development projects.

Providing free bus travel to women fosters various positive societal impacts. It improves access to education, leading to higher enrollment rates, better attendance, and improved educational performance. More healthcare accessibility ensures better maternal and child health outcomes and aids in disease prevention.

This initiative enhances women’s safety during commutes, promoting a sense of security. It fosters community integration, enabling them to participate in social gatherings and civic activities, leading to stronger, more gender-inclusive communities.

By narrowing economic disparities, especially for women from economically weaker backgrounds, this policy provides more equitable access to transportation services, contributing to a fairer society.
One criticism of the FFPT model has been the extensive burden on the public exchequer. Some consider it as a diversion from the current fiscal responsibility and budget management obligations of the states.

However, the capital gains from this policy are much higher, and more female participation in the workforce will only raise the country’s gross domestic product in the long run. The fiscal burden can be addressed through additional revenues. States can also increase parking fees, which not only supports the pruning of state revenues but also discourages the usage of private vehicles on the road. States can also consider increasing the registration fees for private vehicles. Public buses, with increased ridership, can also be a good marketing platform for advertisements, and the revenues from this activity can be utilised to make public transport free for women.

In the pursuit of gender equality and economic progress, some Indian states have already taken significant steps. Policies providing free bus travel for women have been implemented to varying degrees in four states—Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Karnataka. These initiatives are promising in empowering women and fostering economic growth. It’s high time other states carefully examine these models and consider integrating them into policies. Empowering women through accessible public transport is not just a regional necessity but a nationwide imperative. Every state can adapt and implement a similar policy to uplift its economy and society without compromising on environmental sustainability.

To truly progress as a nation, it is imperative to bridge gender gaps in all aspects of life. Embracing inclusive policies that empower women should become a common goal for all states, reflecting commitment in creating a brighter, more equitable future for every citizen.

Vikrant Singh

Director, Centre for Competition Law and Economics

Abhishek Raj

Director, Centre for Competition Law and Economics


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