According to a petition filed by Ms Ashwini Upadhyay, “Promise of irrational freebies from the public fund before the election unduly influences voters, disturbs the level playing field, shakes the roots of a free-fair election and vitiates purity of election process. Promise/distribution of irrational freebies from the public fund before an election to lure voters is analogous to Bribery and Undue Influence under S.171B and S.171C of the IPC.”
Next comes the question, “What is a “freebie?”
In response to this, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin has defended the free bus travel scheme provided for working women in Tamil Nadu by the state government as an “economic revolution” and cannot be narrowly categorised as “freebies”. Also, this is only one among the many such measures to help the poor, and there are many such measures taken by the Tamil Nadu government to reduce inequality and to help the poor, Dr Kanimozhi Somu has tweeted.
The need for women’s empowerment
According to this report by UN Women, “Women’s economic empowerment is central to realising women’s rights and gender equality. Women’s economic empowerment includes women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets; their access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household to international institutions.”
While women’s empowerment alone would not guarantee gender equality in society, and financial empowerment is only one of the pillars of women’s empowerment, it is still absolutely necessary for women to have access to education and employment.
Why does this scheme allow free public transport (free bus travel) only for women?
The goal behind this is to enable women to be able to get out of their homes and travel to work. Women, in general, struggle a lot more than men do when it comes to sustaining financial freedom and having a promising career because of many reasons, such as culture, gender stereotypes in society, gender bias at the workplace, childcare, inequality in heterosexual couples’ marriages, lack of education (which again, is caused by all these factors, which in turn makes it harder for women to find decent employment), etc.
According to this article on BusinessToday.in, “India has reached the Moon, but it has failed to get its women out of homes. The Economic Survey finds that 60 per cent of women in India in the productive age bracket of 15-59 years are engaged in full-time housework.”
The periodic labour force survey (PLFS) data from 2017 to 2020 shows that there’s a significant gap in the Labour Force Participation Rates between Indian men and Indian women (rural and urban combined).
For women from underprivileged communities, it becomes even more difficult compared to privileged women to attain financial freedom. They are mostly not educated and are unemployed or are “housewives”. Those women who work primarily participate in physical labour and work in factories. They can’t live in central areas because they can’t afford it, so they, along with their families, live in remote places, which means that they can’t access work opportunities in different parts of the city/town they live in. Those who do go to work have to come home and take care of cooking, cleaning, and other responsibilities as well, as most men in India do not participate in these household activities, and poor women can’t afford help either.
This data gives us a state-wise breakdown of the Female Labour Force Participation (in percentage) in India. This shows us that in all these states, not even 50% of women (of all age groups) are either working or seeking work.
Financial freedom can help different women achieve different things, and the needs of all women in society must be respected. While empowered women make it to great heights and also contribute to the financial growth and development of a country, as wealthy and powerful men do, women in poorer families need the money for primary purposes like providing food for their families, health and protection of themselves and their children, and to be able to provide education for their children.
Like Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, President & Board Chair at Charles Schwab Foundation, says, “for us (women), financial independence is more than a matter of strength; it’s a matter of necessity.”
Why free travel options on public buses over other modes of transport?
One of the many blocks on the way for women happens to be unaffordable and/or inaccessible transport. We know that for the general public, the government offers public transport only through trains and buses. Among these options, while metro trains have been quite successful and helpful for the citizens, these options help only the people who live in metro cities. Otherwise, a majority of the people rely on buses for daily mobility, and also, the poor, while already being poor, can’t afford private transport, so this scheme seems to make sense, right?
How effective has this scheme been so far?
According to what Transport Minister SS Sivasankar recently said, “In the past one year, more than 132 crores have benefitted from this scheme and the state government sanctioned around ₹1,600 crores as subsidies to various state transport undertakings including MTC to implement this scheme effectively.”
How will enabling women to study and work contribute to the growth and development of a country?
According to this article, “If Indian women participated in the labour market at the same rate as men, over 200 million additional workers could be mobilised. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2025, equal opportunities for women in India could add $700 billion to the economy.”
But the LFPR of females in India has been significantly low for decades now, compared to other countries like the USA, Germany, Japan, China, etc., as you can see:
It is intuitively understandable that when more people in a country are educated and the more opportunities they are provided, the more people will work. As the number of employed people in a country increases, the country’s economy will increase on different levels. Not only would women contribute to the economic growth of a country, but women’s empowerment would also create a “multiplier effect”, it is said.
To summarise, a vast percentage of the females in India are unemployed or are engaged in unpaid domestic labour. There are many hindrances that women face when it comes to education and employment. It is the duty of the union and state governments to create new policies, to work towards gender equality, and to encourage women to study and work.
The “free bus transport” for women in the state is one such scheme which is aimed at supporting women in the state to make it easier for them to travel for work. This is a welcome change to the Dravidian model of TN politics, and other states in India must also put in such efforts to create similar schemes and policies to help their female population.
Also read: The Tamil Nadu ‘Freebie’ Debate: Welfare For Whom?
Not all “freebies” can be labelled as “bribery”; policies like “free bus rides for women” and a few other revolutionary schemes like the old (and popular) “mid-day meal plan in government schools for children” are indeed necessary to help the downtrodden people in a country like ours. As feminists, during unfortunate times like this, when rapists are released on bail and are welcomed with garlands and celebrations, we welcome this promising scheme by MK Stalin.
Also read: Thoughts While Reclaiming The Ladies’ Seat In Metro: Space, Accessibility, and Entitlement
Featured image source: The Hindu