Free transport for women in Punjab: Does zero cost really mean free?

punjab roadways bus ashok leyland light green 1 e1747f85

Punjab Chief Minister Shri Amrinder Singh’s scheme to provide free of cost travel in government run buses to women in Punjab became operational today. While this is a welcome move to empower women and girls and improve their access to mobility within the state to avail and sustain opportunities for education and employment, we should not forget
the golden words of the Nobel Prize award-winning American economist, Milton Friedman, ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch.’ or in this case a free ride.

The Punjab State Government is already knee-deep in a debt of Rs. 2.28 lakh crore (source: The India Express) and populist strategies to woo voters are only going to add to this ever-increasing debt. While the scheme has been launched with the aim to provide an incentive to girls to stay in school and and women to pursue economic opportunities without bearing the daily cost of transport, and ultimately to reduce female drop-out rates and bridge
the gender-employment gap in the State, one can not ignore the fact that the State Government can not afford to lose another source of revenue while no new sources are in sight.

A similar scheme was also launched in 2019 by the AAP led Delhi Government to provide free public transport to women and girls in both metros and government run buses and was critiqued on similar grounds of its economic viability. However, the social and environmental benefits of such schemes such as increase in the social circle of women outside of their
family or the reduction in congestion and pollution and associated health risks such as asthma are much needed in the current scenario.

The increasing subsidy and welfare schemes and loan waivers offered by the Punjab Government coupled with the rising debt beg to ask the question whether State Governments should offer unchecked and unconditional free goods and services to the citizens? Making the cost of offering services to a certain section of the society does not make these services ‘free’ per se as someone is bearing the cost of these services in the form of taxes and fees. Every activity has an opportunity cost and it can not be denied that
there are economic costs associated with this move as well.

In a similar fashion, the subsidies offered by the State Government to farming and non-farming businesses such as those on water and electricity have led to over-excessive use of these services and increasing the cost of the State Government. Furthermore, the loan waivers offered to these businesses have led to increased non-performing assets by taking away the incentive of the citizens to work hard. This has also given rise to a feeling of
resentment towards such businesses among the citizens who actually have to bear the costs by means of increased rates of taxes.

Besides, the resources used for providing this ‘free’ transportation takes away resources from more income and profit generating activities of the government such as development of affordable housing for the poor or activities aimed at greater and direct welfare in more pressing areas such as conducting vaccination drives, healthcare facilities and keeping a check on the rising cases of coronavirus. It also takes away resources from providing better public transport services to the citizens that make their use safer and reliable and a much more pleasant experience for those using it and in turn increasing the willingness of even those people to use public transport who would otherwise not.

It is suggested that the government offer this service of zero cost of using public transport to citizens on the grounds of their economic status and make it more gender inclusive rather than offering it to women of all walks and taking away this opportunity from those who might need it more. This would then result in true redistribution of wealth from the rich to the
underprivileged. A special single-entitlement card may be issued to such persons eligible for this providing this service to them.
This check will ensure that there is no misuse or overuse of services leading to overcrowding and put a strain on the public transport system. In case of an unidirectional scheme, the State would require more buses to be up and running, provisioning of which would further weaken the economic condition of Punjab. Additionally, the loss of revenue from the transport sector and inability of the government to fulfill the requirement of more buses will lead to the monopoly of private players, increasing the cost of public transport for others in the long run.

Strengthening the position of women in the State requires more direct efforts such as increasing the employability of and employment opportunities for women along with sensitization of the masses and public officials towards women’s issues rather than providing free transport. It also has to be noted that ‘free’ travel does not equate to safe travel and
crimes against women on public transport can not be stopped by this scheme. This is proved by the fact that Delhi ranks first in crime against women among 19 metropolitan cities in India according to the National Crime Records Bureau. More dedicated efforts are needed to be implemented in the State along with investment in security devices such as panic buttons, security cameras, etc. and strengthening of the police force especially female officers and hawaldars.

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