Monday 11 January 2016

Delhi’s ‘Odd-Even’ scheme is about more than pollution (Sunday Guardian)

It may be debatable whether pollution levels have dropped, but it is undeniable that it has made several citizens examine options such as car pooling or the Metro.

Given the fevered state of politics in India, it was no surprise that a flurry of invective greeted Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s sudden decision to restrict cars on the road on specific days depending on their registration numbers. Days after the “temporary” measure was initiated, studies have emerged that show that there has been only a small dip in pollution levels in Delhi consequent to the measure. Certainly, the restriction on “Odd Even” private cars driven by males will not by itself do much to reduce the smog that is draining the lungs of those unfortunate enough to live in a city which has become overcrowded and increasingly dishevelled. Given that decision to retain Delhi as the capital, it would have made sense to ensure that industrial units not get located in or around the city, so that its congestion may ease. Or avoid the use of so much land within city limits in the building of residential accommodation rather than be kept as open space.
Behind Arvind Kejriwal’s coughs and the sniffles lurks a ruthless power seeker focused on taking over the top slot in government, the corner office in South Block now occupied by Narendra Modi. In place of the relaxed culture of the Aam Aadmi Party during its early months of existence, Arvind Kejriwal today has as much control over his party as Sonia Gandhi has in hers. However, none of this detracts from the fact that overall, and despite the limitations imposed by its lack of powers over such matters as the NDMC, the police and Delhi-centric bodies such as the DDA, the AAP has acquitted itself rather better than several other state governments have. The volume of corruption seems lower than in many other parts of the country, and the taste for innovative ideas higher. Unfortunately for federalism, the Union Home Ministry seems to have made it its mission and its mandate to hound and harass the Delhi government, a task in which it has the enthusiastic cooperation of the Lt-Governor of Delhi. If only Najeeb Jung were to spend less time blocking policy initiatives and devote more attention to suggesting ways by which the citizenry in Delhi may be benefited, he would not seem so partisan. Indeed, a parallel to Jung would be the Congress-appointed Governor of Gujarat during 2009-2014, Kamla Beniwal, who shamelessly implemented a policy of throwing rocks in the path of Chief Minister Modi in his numerous initiatives. The way in which the Lt-Governor and the Union Home Ministry are responding to the Aam Aadmi Party’s overwhelming victory in the 2015 Assembly elections is damaging the name of the Modi government. It needs to be remembered that the Prime Minister himself has in his interactions with the Delhi CM been largely supportive of the steps which the duly elected Delhi government is taking. It has been said before but needs to get repeated that much more harm is being done to the image of PM Modi by his presumed friends than by his obvious foes, the Beniwal-model darts directed against Kejriwal being an example.
A sense of obligation to the community has motivated residents of Delhi into very high levels of obedience to the “Odd Even” scheme, and it should be continued after 15 January.
Rather than Page 3 celebrities, the AAP has chosen to take as its mascots ordinary citizens. While a male motorist in Delhi may not suffer any damage to his conscience going against an order enforced by the police, it is a different matter to confront an idealistic teenager, who may the same age as a son or daughter. The deployment of such volunteers has provided a moral force far greater than the earlier images of the rich and the powerful wielding brooms as though they were golf clubs, clearly in a hurry to shuffle around a bit till the cameras moved on. Prime Minister Modi’s call for Swachh Bharat is an initiative of prime importance to the future of this country, and those implementing it need to learn from the “aam aadmi” (rather than celebrity) approach of the Odd-Even campaign. It may be debatable whether pollution levels have dropped after the measure was introduced, but it is undeniable that it has made several citizens examine options such as car pooling or using the Metro rather than choke the roads and burn up imported fuel travelling all by oneself in a huge car. 
A sense of obligation to the community has motivated residents of Delhi into very high levels of obedience to the “Odd Even” scheme, and for this reason alone, it should be continued rather than abandoned on 15 January. Indeed, more initiatives need to be taken, such as making more stretches of road off limits for vehicular traffic, or ensuring “bicycle only” paths, that would promote alternatives to cars and other polluting vehicles. 
The BJP needs to reach out for its mascots beyond Page 3 types to ordinary Indians. Much of the appeal of Prime Minister Modi has come from the fact that he is from a simple, homespun family rather than the elite. In the case of Incredible India, for example, there ought to be several “brand ambassadors”, most from the “common” citizenry, who are the real treasure of this land and who would convince those from outside to visit a country truly unique.


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