The Case of Free Rides in Delhi: Sacrificing Institutions for Votes?
Updated: May 30, 2020
Earlier in June, the Aam Aadmi Party government in the state of Delhi declared an unprecedented plan to offer a free ride in Delhi transport buses and Delhi metros for all women. It set-off a new wave of political circus in the capital with roughly half a year left for the upcoming state elections. This is in the backdrop of a very discouraging performance in 2019 general elections, where AAP stood third in five out of Delhi’s seven parliamentary constituencies and a distant second in the remaining two constituencies. In this context, this free ride scheme, reimbursed by the state exchequer, is a Rs. 1200 crore (Rs. 1.2 billion)per year attempt to woo voters. Of course, as with all freebies, the political class spared no attempt to color their electoral endeavor in a deceptive shade; this time in the name of “women safety”. The free ride scheme has been almost unanimously debunked by experts, including the creator of Delhi Metro, Dr. E Sreedharan who shot a letter to the Union Government urging them not to consider the proposal and advise the state government to do a direct transfer to the beneficiary itself. In response to the overwhelming logic and evidence mounting against the free ride policy, the AAP government in the state came out with a set of half-baked statistics which make quarter sense, if scratched beyond the surface. Each one of them needs to be weighed against the ground reality of infrastructure being influenced and cost-benefit of the step.
Who decides? First, one must understand that the Delhi State Government is a key stakeholder in the Delhi Metro project along with the Union Government. However, as a shareholder, it does not get an ultimate say in the day-to-day operations of Delhi Metro – such power and responsibility vests with the thirteen-member strong Board of Directors of DMRC which is a mix of representatives from Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Ministry of Railways, Delhi Development Authority and of course DMRC’s full-time directors. Delhi State Government staking claims on DMRCs operations is beyond how corporate governance should work. Even if the Delhi State Government, as no more than a shareholder, is willing to reimburse the cost of travel of female travelers, the DMRC’s Board of Directors are well within its right to reject the scheme citing reasons which may be technological or sheer operational. It is the BoD of DMRC with its experts, which would understand the working of the DMRC better than the AAP government.
The Reimbursement Question Then, there is the case of Rs. 1200 crore per annum reimbursement which AAP has offered to the metro to suggest that there will be no additional cost for them to ply all the free riders. This is flawed logic at many levels. First, the Delhi government has not cracked open a treasure box to find these funds – but would garner this money from taxpayers. And this awakening idea on women safety happened only now with elections in sight, which means, that even if the scheme goes through, the first installment of reimbursement will be made by the next government in the state. This sort of political “I-promise-you-heavens-but-paid-by-someone-else” is a growing attitude in Indian politicians which must be stopped. Second, the state government is completely disregarding the fact that the additional and free riders, who would also spend much more time on stations, would be tremendous stress on the infrastructure of the metro. We have all seen the pictures of oceans of people thronging at some metro stations, and how that stresses the facilities, ranging from air conditioning to security and to general wear and tear. AAP government ignores these basic realities in its reimbursement carrot.
Load Factor Delhi Government has put up a number to the public to justify its intent – Delhi Metro occupancy rate is 62%. This was to suggest that metros are running one-third vacant and hence can easily accommodate a few lakh extra travelers. This argument is misleading. Metros (like other public transport systems) sees phases of peak and low loading times and this also changes with the direction of the metro. Hence, their rating is often done in a unit called PHPDT or Peak Hour Peak Direction Traffic – which measures the maximum traffic they witness in a given direction and a peak time slot. For instance, in the case of Delhi Metro’s Gurgaon direction, approximately 34,000 people go towards it in peak hour (PHPDT) of 9 am to 10 am. Each eight coach train is able to take at full load a little over 2,000 people at a peak time frequency of three minutes a train. The math puts the peak loading already at an alarming near 100% in these times. I guess one needs to be an “aam” metro rider to witness this math in action. Free rides would put maximum pressure in the peak time zones – a time at which the system is least capable to endure additional load.
How do women become safer? I fundamentally question the premise of this scheme – women safety. AAP government has two assumptions here. First, that women will be safer if more women are around them in the metro. Second, just because Rs. 10 ticket is now free, all women will leave whatever else work they have and start thronging the metro stations. The logic of putting some people on free tickets so that they form a cohort with other people on more free tickets is illogical and absurd. It colors an admission of self-defeat in the government’s assessment of its ability to protect its women and citizens in general. Why should a woman not feel safe even if she is alone in an entire metro? What happens to her if she steps out of the metro or bus and heads to her home through a desolate street? We need to ensure that women feel safe 24×7 and all streets and not merely in metros and buses. Even if there are those who see some substance in this – we need to see the opportunity cost of this scheme, which means what else could have been done with the same amount of money spent for the same purpose. Let me present two cases. Every year, the state government will spend 1200 crores of tax payer’s money for the free ride scheme. That is Rs. 3,600 (36 billion) crores in three years. Assuming a security camera on road costs about Rs. 10,000 (and three-year lifetime) the math behind tells that we can install 3.6 million security cameras across Delhi with this money. Delhi, with about 28,000 kilometers of the road (including highways and smaller roads), can hence have one security CCTV camera for every 7 meters with this amount! Not only women safety but also the issue of vehicle theft, robberies, thefts, and arson can all be resolved with such a setup. Also, imagine the increase in the GDP of the state and job created in the process. Don’t like it? Let me suggest something else. Consider recruiting more police constables. Even better, recruit women constables. If each of them gets Rs. 25,000 a month, we can put up an additional force of 40,000 more constables on roads. To put things in perspective, the Delhi police has about 80,000 police personnel out of which only 60,000 are available for public (rest are guarding VVIPs). So, we can effectively almost double the police strength and put an additional female police officer every half a kilometer of road. 40,000 families will also find new jobs to support them. True development is in building institutions and not dismantling them.
You get one irreversible shot There is an unsaid law of dole-outs in a democracy – “that what is given away once, cannot be rolled back.” In practicality, the free rides in buses and metros, once given to 50% of the population can never be undone – it can only expand further. The demand will, quite legitimately, they also grow to other population segments – students, economically deprived, physically challenged and aged. Why leave them out of the benefit loop? If the Delhi Government suddenly finds itself with a treasure box of taxpayers’ money, it should be prudent in how to use it. There are far better ways to protect women and all citizens of the state using perhaps much lesser amount of money – and which will create jobs and also not risk damaging a remarkable public transport system. The current state government has done some noteworthy work in schools and hospitals, and perhaps a better strategy would be to focus on that impact as an election plank than undermine it with such a whim. In 2011, my very first book was on leadership lessons from Delhi Metro story. I remember writing about the then-septuagenarian metro man, and how he used to visit stations regularly at 6 am in the morning and the first he would do is bend down at the stairs leading to the station and he would wipe his finger across the stairs to check for dust and whether they have been cleaned properly. This is how great institutions are built by sweat, toil and humility. Then, last week, while entering the Rajiv Chowk metro I saw a signboard “25 years of Delhi Metro (1995-2019)”. The AAP government of Delhi state needs to ask itself now – is sacrificing a world-class system, our engineers and leaders built over a quarter of a century, worth a price to pay for a (possible) electoral gain?
This article got published in India Today on 24 June 2019.