December 3, 2021

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Constitutionality of the free bus rides scheme for females

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This article is written by Pranjali Aggarwal of the University Institute of Legal Studies, Punjab University, Chandigarh. This article delves over the topic of the constitutionality of free bus rides for women in accordance with Article 14 and Article 15(3) of the constitution.

Table of Contents

The scheme for free bus rides to females has been launched by Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi on 3 June 2019 under which the government will sponsor free travel for women in the Delhi Metro and DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses. The then Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amrinder Singh Gill rolled out a similar scheme under which the women of Punjab can travel free of cost on all non-AC intra-state government buses in the state which came effective from 1 April 2021, and even Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M.K. Stalin also announced fare-free travel for women on basic-fare government buses this year. At first, the free ticket idea does not seem to be a huge step but if we see the savings per month and per year it surely proves to be the imperative step for women. For instance, if a woman earns 20,000 per month but spends 2500 per month on bus service for commuting to her job, this scheme will help save her 12.5% of the income which was earlier incurred. 

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Fare-free public transport (FFTP) is not a naive concept and a myriad of trials and experiments have been conducted regarding its implementation. Some countries have partial implementation for particular groups of the people like students and senior citizens, or during a specific time like weekends or off-peak hours and even some countries have implemented it fully; the list where it is implemented can be found here. Luxembourg was the first country in the world that made public transport free for everyone universally be it, citizens of the country or tourists, in the year 2020. The main objective behind the introduction of this scheme has been a better quality of mobility by reducing traffic and to reduce the burden from the environment by promoting public transport rather than private.

The reason behind the introduction of the scheme exclusively for women in India is basically because of inequality existing in Indian society and how they face discrimination on frequently in their lives. Following are the few purposes for which this scheme has been launched:-

Upliftment of status of women

In India, where the girls are dropped out of school because the parents do not want to incur expenditure on their studies and are generally not given much financial assistance to pursue their career or fulfil their passion because of patriarchy ingrained in the society. This scheme provides a solution because even if a small portion of the budget is cut down they can be allowed to study, pursue their career, or travel for their needs, and hence financial burden will not hinder their growth. Social inclusion, better opportunities, education, etc will ensure the empowerment of women in society.

Buses as a mode of transport for common people

Public transport is the holy grail of the common class of people. The people prefer buses over trains because buses commute more frequently and it is seen that because of this reason many women opt for buses as a mode of transport. Thus this initiative will help the women to travel without any fare and in turn even reduce the family burden on the family because if there is a financial crunch in the family which is common in the underprivileged people, the women are affected first.

Increasing female ridership 

The prime objective of the scheme is based on the social condition of our society, that is to provide transport services to the women because they are deprived of it mainly because of parochial thoughts of the family as many families are not ready to spend money on daughters or wives and women are generally dependent on the male member for monetary support. But now as there is no fare, females will be able to enjoy the transportation services and can travel for their educational purposes, job prospects, etc. As now they will be independent to travel and will even save economically so more females will use bus service to travel.

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Better safety of women with more female riders

As free tickets will naturally lead to more female passengers in the bus, this will create an atmosphere of safety and security among women which will empower other women to enjoy the services that were generally regarded as unsafe. Like after the Nirbhaya gang rape, the girls feared to travel by buses during late hours but this will help the women to access the places that are dominated by men because its general notion of the human mind that if there is one more person like us we feel more comfortable and same is the case here. We can see that the purpose for initiating this scheme is somewhat similar to a separate ladies coach in the train to ensure safety because of more female riders.

Increasing female participation in the workforce

Nowadays, women are becoming independent and are more oriented towards getting employed. Even then, travelling acts as a stumbling block in their careers. According to the World Bank, India is ranked at 120 among 131 countries in the female labor force and the average participation rate is at 23 percent. In India, the employment options are already limited and even the offers or opportunities secured by women are turned down by them because of the distance between the residence and job location which makes the job unaffordable because of expenses incurred on travelling. But because of this scheme, the fare from women is not charged and thus, this will ensure increased participation of women in the workforce and even they could travel to different places in lieu of work and find better job opportunities for themselves. It would result in women not confining themselves to a particular area because of non-availability of resources.

Better medical assistance and care

Many females that belong to rural areas are not able to access quality medical services because of their low income as only the expenses incurred on travelling from one city to another on regular basis for check-ups and appointments disbalances the family budget so they prefer the services in the home town only despite the quality of service provided. So this scheme ensures that at least the cost incurred on travelling can be cut down and women can get quality treatments and this will ensure a better state of their health.

There have been petitions in the Honorable Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of the scheme and to strike down this provision as it is unconstitutional, arbitrary, illegal, and discriminatory but the case was dismissed by the bench composed of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice C.Hari Shankar. Let’s discuss the constitutional provisions in this case.

Article 14

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution states that every person is entitled to equality before the law and equal protection of the law and the state cannot deny it. These expressions though look similar but are quite different.

Equality before law

This concept has been borrowed from the UK and finds its origin in the concept of ‘Rule of Law’. This limb implies that law applies equally to each class and state cannot discriminate and provide special privilege in favour of any individual, thus it is a negative concept. As everyone is considered the same under the law, Lady Justice is blindfolded to establish this principle.

Equal protection of the law

This concept has been borrowed from American law. This limb is a positive aspect and enunciates that ‘equals should be treated equally’. Because if all unequal will be treated equally, this will not bridge the gap between them and thus disparities will still exist. This allows specific enactment to be made for a particular class based on their situation and welfare of the people like in the Domestic Violence Act, 2005 only women are covered and not men.

This principle forms the basis for any law of positive discrimination that is enacted to cater for the needs of a particular class but there should exist a reasonable classification that acts as a test for the arbitrary nature. There are two conditions that are to be relied upon to fulfill this reasonable classification for this positive law to be implemented:-

  • Intelligible differentia- It basically means the difference that is capable of being understood like there should exist a rational basis behind including one class and excluding others. 
  • Rational nexus- It means that there should be a reasonable connection or nexus between the basis of classification and the purpose which is intended to be achieved with the enactment.

Considering this scheme as per Article 14, it can be said that it does not violate Article 14 because in this case the differentiation between men and women is based on the presumption that women are unsafe and have less access to resources as compared to men and that is why this scheme is propounded to create a safer situation for women because of increased female riders in the bus and it will also ameliorate the social status of women because this scheme is making women financially independent to some extent, moreover, greater access to opportunities means better growth. Another aspect that comes into the picture is that every woman does not need free transport service as some of them are well-off enough to pay for the services and the government has said that one who can afford the ticket can pay the price. The government has specifically enforced this provision for the safety of women and to help those women for whom economic status is a barrier in their movement in life.

Article 15(3)

Article 15 mentions that there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any of them but it also explicitly mentioned in clause 3 that the state can make any special provision for women and children and this will not be subject to any provision contained in this section. The rationale behind the existence of this clause is that our lawmakers know the status of women and how they are oppressed, and devoid of facilities compared to men. So this clause was carved so that government can introduce laws specifically for women in order to bring them at par with men and they do not face any hardship or discrimination in their life because of their gender. 

Considering this scheme in accordance with Article 15(3), it passes the test of constitutionality as it is a specific provision made for women that helps in their empowerment and helps to curb incidents of sexual harassment in public places. There are several case laws where the Supreme Court has upheld the law though it discriminates between men and women like in the case of Girdhar v. State(1952), where the petitioner said that Section 354, Indian Penal Code,1860 is contrary to Article 15(1) because only if an assault is done against women to outrage her modesty is punishable but not in the case of men,  the honorable court held that this section is valid as it under the ambit of Article 15(3) because it is a provision made for the advantage of women.

India is a country that has a long history of patriarchy and even now we can observe the hegemony of men. No doubt, many women are becoming independent, strong, and are competing with men but still, several evils persist in Indian society that act as impediments in women empowerment and the safety of women is one of them. It is true that just by providing free bus rides only, the safety of women cannot be ensured and states need to draft more policies to combat this issue but still it is a huge step in the direction of women empowerment. Moreover, the government should even consider other under privileged groups like people with disabilities, people below the poverty line, etc that are also in dire need of these services to live a quality life. Thus, the scheme for free rides for women is a significant move but certain other pragmatic aspects like a financial burden on the government, inclusivity of other groups, etc should also be incorporated.

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