Say what you will about Arvind Kejriwal’s odd/even rule as a solution for Delhi’s pollution and traffic woes, it is a rare example of successfully involving citizens in a socially-meaningful activity. On the practical front, there are many criticisms — fair and outlandish — that have been directed against the scheme. (The old photo showing an overcrowded Metro station because of this new rule, was certainly a cheap shot.)
At the very least, it needs to be asked whether such an initiative can reduce the high levels of pollution in a city like Delhi. The answer, from reports that have appeared, is no, it has not. Vehicles do contribute to pollution, but there are other causes too, such as the burning of waste material during winter. The city’s smog is now officially a serious health hazard and will require a massive, sustained and well-researched methods to tackle. There was a short period in the early part of the noughties when pollution was felt to have reduced, but since then, it has been climbing every day. The same is the case in every other city in the country.
Successive governments seem to have just thrown up their hands. Pollution is not an electoral issue and sadly, not even a sexy policy one. Whether it is mounting garbage or the drying up of lakes or haphazard construction, India’s cities and towns are in the grip of a mounting ecological crisis and administrators are simply not interested in tackling it.
Kejriwal’s solution is no solution that will make a big long term difference. Without major investments in public transport and investments in anti-pollution technology, as well as a long-term public education programme, ideas such as driving odd and even numbered cars — and that too with so many exceptions — will at best remain ad-hoc.
But what he has done — and this is the part that has significance beyond its immediate impact — is made citizens stakeholders in a scheme that is for their own and for the larger good. He has not done something populist just in time for elections, or rouse them to destructive ends or even whipped them up with fiery speeches for a narrow, communalist programme. Indeed, the whole agenda has been presented with a total lack of rhetoric or bluster. There have been naysayers before it was launched and critics after it started — even the courts, which were initially seen to support it, have now asked for it to be stopped.
At the same time, citizens saw its benefits, not the least of them being emptier roads and consequently less traffic jams. It has been suggested that the fear of fines prompted this compliance, but there are scores of laws that are daily broken on urban roads, so why would a challan worry those who wanted to take their cars out? The ‘success’ of the plan was mainly due to the fact that citizens bought into Kejriwal’s idea and felt there was merit in it. They realised they had the key to whether it would work or not. Kejriwal spoke to them as partners, they responded.
There have been attempts like this in the past, of course. Swachh Bharat was one such initiative, when the Prime Minister appealed to his countrymen and women to clean up their neighbourhoods. Again, it was an idea involving citizens but it soon failed because it was seen to be a great photo-op without any follow up plan. Narendra Modi has the gift of speaking to the crowds, but he is seen as far more remote than say a Kejriwal. With the former, the citizen thinks — ‘the PM is busy and after a photo or two with a broom will get on to other matters.’ Kejriwal on the other hand could do car pooling every day; he may eventually give it up, but it plants a seed in the individual’s mind.
The Swadeshi movement in the early part of the 20th century, when people made bonfires of foreign textiles was an early example of such popular engagement with a cause. Gandhiji marched to Dandi to break the salt tax law and converted a humble act into a revolution. The Indian version of the American campaign, ‘Each One Teach One’ got hundreds of thousands of citizens — including youngsters — involved in the 1970s.
By their very definition, successful popular politicians have a way of working the crowds. But more often than not, the relationship of the speaker and the mass of listeners is one-sided. The people come (or, often, are brought) to the venue, the leader arrives, at once a powerful and distant figure, speaks and thunders and leaves. But not all have the common touch and the most powerful weapon, empathy. Indira Gandhi was among the most empathetic politicians in India. In the India of today, the stand outs would be Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee. They could conceivably convince their followers to participate in something like the odd/even experiment, because the crowds would believe their sincerity in proposing the plan.
The odd-even scheme is likely to fizzle out and things will get back to ‘normal’ sooner than later. But Kejriwal will gain a reputation as not only a trier, but also as a politician different from others in that he invited Delhi’s citizens to participate in trying to improve their city. His ideas of involving residents of a mohalla or a colony to give their ideas to improve their neighbourhood will be taken seriously. He has now a high believability factor and not just in his own state. The new citizen wants to be a participant and not a subject. This is something for Indian politicians to think about.
Sidharth Bhatia is a senior journalist and a founder editor of Thewire.in The views expressed are personal