The 2011 Census recorded Tamil Nadu’s population at 7.21 crore, of which 3,60,09,055 are women. Tamil Nadu has a female labour participation rate of 30%, one of the highest in the country. Corollary to that, women constitute 75% of the workforce in the fireworks, automobile, and garment industries, which are known for hazardous and unsafe work environments. In these industries, despite comprising two-thirds of the workforce, working women are paid half the wages of their male counterparts. As of 2020, Tamil Nadu recorded vehicles above the 2.5 crore mark, with around 2.15 crore two-wheelers.
The above- mentioned may look like an amalgamation of unrelated facts, but a closer reading reveals an interesting pattern at play. A substantial number of women in Tamil Nadu are part of the workforce, and most of the working women are employed in economically exploitative industries, which makes them financially vulnerable. The available income for these women are further limited by prohibitive travel costs, insufficient number of buses, and lack of accessibility. Adding to that is the constant concern about their own physical safety in public spaces. This concern is legitimised by the statistics of the Tamil Nadu State Crime Bureau, which reiterates that crimes against women remain unabated.
What we see here is a melting pot of problems that restrict the autonomy and choices of working women. While the former AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) government, with its Amma Two Wheeler Scheme, made a foray into a gender sensitive policy approach addressing the problems of the female workforce, the recently elected DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam)’s latest orders may take it to fruition.
Making public transport accessible to women: From AIADMK to DMK
AIADMK launched the Amma Two Wheeler Scheme in 2018 to enable working women from underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds to buy a two-wheeler of their choice. The scheme provides 50% subsidy or 25,000 rupees, whichever is lesser in value. It offers a pan state coverage and empowers differently abled women with the choice of a three-wheeler retrofitted on a two-wheeler. However, he eligibility requirements often have limited the pool of women who can access the scheme. For example, the plan caps the annual income to 2,50,000 rupees and requires that applicants already have a valid two-wheeler driver’s license or a learner’s license. The success of this scheme has therefore been severely limited. One of the dealers, VKR Vadivel, says, “To be honest, most bikes I have given through this scheme have gone to middle or upper-middle-class working women. Economically weak families have not benefited. This is because women need to have around `20,000 in hand for an initial payment.”
DMK, in its election manifesto, among many progressive promises called for free bus travel for women. After the new Chief Minister M.K Stalin took his oath on 7th May’2021, one of the first orders signed by him included free bus travel for women. Following the order, in a Twitter battle between journalist Induja Ranganathan and MK Stalin, the latter concurred with Induja’s suggestion to extend the free travel scheme to the transgender community. Stalin, replied, “It has been the practice of the DMK government since time immemorial to think of transgender life in conjunction with women’s welfare and rights. Thank you for paying attention to it. Trans individuals, like women, will be considered for free travel, and the appropriate decision will be made quickly”.
The assent of the order for women in itself carries great liberating potential by providing them the agency to not only travel but travel safely. Discussions on extending the option to trans individuals paves the way for public policy formulations that counter gender dichotomies in public places, making them more inclusive.
While the Amma Scheme caters to working women by giving them greater agency and autonomy through the ownership of a vehicle, DMK’s decision further democratises mobility for all women as well as the transgender community. Both these initiatives together go a long way in empowering women.
Access to free transport: Money saved is money earned
The Covid-19 crisis has been emotionally, physically and financially challenging for everyone. However, it has been harder for women on all three grounds. The UN Women notes that periods of financial crisis tend to reinforce traditional gender roles, leading to unemployed men having better chances at finding work than their female counterparts. Link this with – gender-pay gaps, fewer financial savings and prohibitive care work leading to dropping out of the labour force, and we have a picture of enhanced economic vulnerability for women. The same survey notes that women are disproportionately more in informal work sectors. Against this backdrop, any and all money saved is money earned.
Beyond the economic logistics of this move, access to transport increases the job locales accessible to working women. As Shreya Gadepalli, South Asia Programme Lead, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), notes, “Free public transport can empower women—give them greater access to jobs and education—and make them more productive members of the society”. Tara Krishnaswamy expands this better when she comments that the move will change women’s lives, especially in the unorganised sector, where working women are dissuaded from taking up jobs as their expenses outweigh their salaries.
The cherry on the top definitely is the promise of safety in public transport,such as a bus. A bus filled with “enough” women passengers is empowering, for it allows each woman to feel safe to exercise one of the most basic agencies available to any individual – that of mobility. It opens up the freedom to not be deterred from travelling far and near for work or personal reasons, across day and night, making mobility an act of free choice.
Mobility for women and trans individuals: The way ahead
While Tamil Nadu was the first state to establish the Welfare Board for Transgender People in 2008, there has been little movement up the ladder. The trans community is one of the most marginalised and dis-empowered in the society. Thus, the first step towards strengthening this scheme would be extending it to members of the transgender community. It serves two purposes – it allows them to explore and access economic opportunities beyond their immediate environment by doing away with prohibitive costs, it also paves the way for trans individuals to claim public spaces. This is of great symbolic value, particularly considering the social ostracism faced by the transgender community.
As ITDP’s 2020 study shows, accessibility apart from affordability continues to be a prime concern for women. Supplementing free bus ride with an increased number of routes could be the first step in this direction, thereby allowing the scheme to reach its full potential of increasing accessibility and mobility for all women. Corollary to this could also be an attempt to operate buses, particularly non-rush-hour buses with female home guards. This may aid in transforming public buses into spaces that feel safer for women, apart from also employing more women in the transport sector.
Since most women are traditionally expected to stay within their household boundaries, an active public life is alien to most of them. A public space holds value, not merely because it is an avenue of congregating for people but because such congregations become sites for work, debates, discussions, revolts, expression and politics. Mobility is the key factor that backs up an individual’s use of such spaces.
From workplace to beaches, women must feel free to commute, take space and make choices that do not exclude them from our public lives.
Featured Image Source: The Hindu