Tamil Nadu’s fare-free bus scheme for women shows positive results, study finds

According to the study, the initiation of the scheme has resulted in noteworthy savings for women and diminished barriers to social inclusion.

BySF Features Desk

Published Feb 21, 2024 | 9:50 AM Updated Feb 21, 2024 | 11:52 AM

The Fair Fares report by CAG was released on 20 February. (cag.org.in)

It’s been nearly three years since the government of Tamil Nadu launched a fare-free public transport scheme for women. Over time, the scheme has generated both praise and criticism.

To comprehend its impact, a study titled Free Fares: Towards Gender Inclusive Transport was conducted by Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), a Chennai-based non-profit. CAG interviewed 3,000 women bus users from six cities in Tamil Nadu: Chennai, Coimbatore, Salem, Tirunelveli, Tiruvannamalai, and Tiruvarur.

These women represented diverse age groups and socio-economic backgrounds.

The study found that across all six cities, women reported an increase in their use of bus services since the introduction of this scheme – a win for sustainable transport.

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Saving for a better future

While many women were already regular bus users, their use of other forms of transportation like paratransit and private vehicles decreased as a result of this scheme.

 

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The study indicated that on average, women saved about ₹800 a month, and this pool of money went towards household necessities, education, and healthcare, leading to better outcomes for both the family and society as a whole.

Another significant observation from the study was that as more women accessed public transport, they were more visible in public spaces. This serves to break down gender stereotypes and associated barriers to the opportunities open and available to women.

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Long-term benefits

The report was formally released by Dr Alby John Varghese, IAS, managing director of MTC, at an event on 20 February.

Welcoming the study, Dr John stressed that, “The scheme provides women with better mobility options as many of them do not own personal vehicles. We acknowledge the need for more buses, and the government is currently working on procuring the same for Chennai and other cities in the state.”

Sumana Narayanan, a senior researcher from CAG, highlighted the economic benefits of this scheme for not just women but their entire families. “The scheme has allowed women to save ₹800 per month on average, and they are reinvesting this money into their families’ health, education, and nutrition. This has long-term benefits for society and the nation,” she said.

“Instead of viewing the fare-free scheme as taxpayers’ money funding free tickets, we need to look at women’s contribution to the GDP and that the scheme allows for greater social inclusion,” she added.

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Addressing brickbats

She further addressed some of the negative narratives the scheme sparked off when it was first announced. “There has been public commentary that the scheme encourages women to step out of their houses without purpose, to loiter. We did find that women are now going out more for recreation and personal time to temples, beaches, and parks. Women too need some ‘Me Time’ for their mental health and happiness, and this should be seen as a positive,” she pointed out.

Shreya Gadepallai, the founder of UrbanWorks, an Indian think tank that works on developing green and inclusive mobility solutions, was also part of the panel which launched the report.

“Only 2 out of 10 women are employed outside the house, compared to 8 out of 10 men in India. Schemes like these reduce the barriers faced by women in entering the labour workforce,” she said.

“In the long run, buses must be the preferred mode of transport for everyone. To get there, we must ensure that there is easy access to bus stops for citizens and a limited wait time,” she added.

A progressive step

Further lauding the scheme itself, Raj Cherubal, Chief Development Goals Specialist of the United Nations Development Programme and former Chennai Smart City CEO, said, “This scheme is a very progressive step forward. Hopefully, this will be followed by dramatic improvement in quality and availability of public transport, on par with advanced cities.”

Building on the scheme’s triumph, Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Thangam Thenarassu disclosed during the state Budget for FY2024-25 an expansion of the free bus travel programme.

Initially provided on TNSTC ordinary buses for women, trans persons, and individuals with disabilities, this initiative will now encompass mofussil buses in mountainous areas like Kodaikanal, Nilgiris, and Valparai. An allocation of ₹3,050 crore has been set aside for the fiscal year 2024-25 as a subsidy for the scheme.

The Tamil Nadu government’s transportation policy for 2021-22 emphasises that the purpose of the fare-free bus scheme is to promote greater social inclusion of women.

The study found that it has been largely embraced by women as it provides them with much-needed access to mobility options. It improves women’s visibility in public spaces, making these spaces safer for women. It allows women to save a considerable amount each month which is invested in their family and hence indirectly in the nation.

The full report can be accessed here.

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