Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at: sen@littlemag.com

Delhi’s driving debate

Published Jan 11, 2016, 1:52 am IST
Updated Jul 8, 2017, 2:19 pm IST
Doctors are asking parents to keep children indoors.
Volunteers display placards which read:
 Volunteers display placards which read: "We will make a pollution free Delhi" during a two-week experiment to reduce the number of cars to fight pollution in New Delhi. (Photo: AP)

Boy with even number-plate seeks bride with odd number-plate — religion, caste no bar.”

Hah! Funny, no? Laugh now, for you may not get a chance later. Such jokes are about to expire. It’s the first day of the last week of Delhi’s experiment with odd and even number-plated cars. The experiment to cut vehicular emission began on the first day of the year and these 10 days have gone amazingly well. Just five more to go. And Gopal Rai, Delhi’s transport minister, has made it clear that the experiment will not go beyond January 15. So no need to buy that second car with a convenient number-plate. Or to get that dodgy, stick-on number-plate for alternate days. No need to insist that chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is mad on odd days and a moron on even days. The trial is almost over.

Delhi’s odd-even traffic experiment — a pilot project to ration road access — is expected to bring down the air pollution levels in the capital. Which is essential, since Delhi is the world’s most polluted city according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). And it is the only city that WHO labels as “very unhealthy” as far as air is concerned. Air pollution kills about 3.3 million people every year, and Delhi is way past the critical stage. Hospitals are filling up with people severely sickened by the air, suffering from terrible lung ailments, heart problems and even cancer. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. So instead of recommending outdoor play for healthy growth doctors are asking parents to keep children indoors. And preferably move to a less polluted city.

So there is no doubt that the capital needs to clean up its air. And even a drastic step like not using your car every other day is acceptable to the public simply because if you are forced to use public transport or form a car pool to get around on alternate days you decisively cut down on car smoke and dust. Instead of mindlessly adding your own car to the heaving, road-blocking, lung-choking, long-smoking traffic that is largely responsible for the terrible level of air pollution in Delhi, this experiment forced us to think of alternatives.

Which itself is a fine achievement. Without public awareness about air pollution and public engagement in attempts to reduce it Delhi will remain a silent deathtrap, a busy hub of poisonous air. But much more has been achieved by this experiment — though perhaps not on the lines expected.

The capital, which over the years has become one big, sprawling, permanent traffic jam, is now quite decongested and relieved to be able to get about. So relieved, that even autorickshaws, notorious for overcharging and arbitrary demands, are happily going by the meter. Indeed, if the state government had extended the experiment beyond the 15th, it would probably have got public support across classes.

Along with Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which devised this seemingly unworkable plan, has gained too. The BJP, which had derided the scheme as designed to fail (so that Mr Kejriwal could moan into his muffler and score victimhood points) has soot on its face. The timing is pretty bad too. It is particularly inconvenient to dent your prestige in a state where you were routed precisely when you want to put up a brave front for the forthcoming West Bengal elections, which will again be a prestige issue.

However, through all this, Delhi’s air quality remained perversely low in the first week of the experiment, causing much angst and animation among both odd-even supporters and pollution deniers. But that is not unexpected, especially at this time of the year. While the government had presented its project as an anti-pollution measure, it now appears that the real objective was to decongest Delhi roads. Maybe Mr Kejriwal’s interest was to liberate Delhi’s roads from the clutches of the upper middle classes and redistribute them equitably. Structurally, it is no different from Naxalite land reform movements of the 20th century.

Because if vehicular pollution were the target, the rational administrator would have attempted to reduce the total number of internal combustion engines at work on the roads, not the number of wheels. Each two-wheeler has an engine running and while the debates about the polluting qualities of various vehicular categories will go on for decades, it’s easy to appreciate that two-wheelers are numerous and their emissions add up. The fact that the government did not place curbs on two-wheeler use — or on cars driven by women — made it clear that reducing emissions was not the main issue. Mr Kejriwal was interested in clearing the roads in such a dramatically obvious manner that other cities would be spurred to action, allowing him to regain the moral capital which keeps the AAP up and running, and whose level has been falling lately.

An odd-even plan cannot be a permanent solution, but Delhi’s AAP government will be remembered for rephrasing the vehicular pollution problem in India. It is no longer the government’s problem; everyone is involved. The libertarian notion, that it is the individual’s right to drive and the government’s duty to make it possible, sounds so absurd now that it will never be articulated again. Pollution control works when it is driven by public commitment and not coercion, and odd-even has made this a credible option.

Of course, the experiment will leave behind its share of questions, absurdities and urban legends. There was the meteoric rise and sudden eclipse of an industry in stick-on numbers. There was the man who returned to his parked car to find — no, not that someone had stolen it, but that someone had tried to steal his licence plate. And there were two-car families who traded their vehicles so that each had an odd-numbered and even-numbered car and could drive seven days a week.

And finally, one must wonder if there is a correlation between the support extended by the opining classes and their access to multiple cars. Indeed, on day one, a lot of the instant responses were from journalists ecstatic with their shortened commute time, causing critics to wonder if the objective of the exercise was to get the media into top gear. But joking apart, odd-even has restarted the pollution debate, which has been in a rut since Delhi switched public transport to CNG. And, for the first time, it has thrown open the question to the public.

The writer is editor of The Little Magazine. Email: sen@littlemag.com





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