The odd-even car rationing scheme, aimed at reducing air pollution, has been implemented twice in Delhi. Round one was from 1-15 January 2016, and round two was 15-30 April same year.
The scheme is aimed only at diesel and petrol cars, and as such could have alienated car-owning Delhiites from the Aam Aadmi Party. To ask car owners to not take out their cars three days a week is a big ask. Car owners are so used to the comforts of their car. They don’t like to get pushed and shoved around in public transport. Have you seen how crowded the Delhi Metro gets in peak hours?
But even if car owners had not liked the scheme, the AAP wouldn’t have lost much. It would only have served to heighten the class polarisation in Delhi. The electorate of Delhi is divided between rich and poor, people who live in gated colonies and those who live in “unauthorised settlements” aka slums. The Aam Aadmi Party is clear that it is after the votes of the poor, who are much greater in number.
Spirit of sacrifice
As it turned out, the odd-even scheme was a huge hit with car owners. It gave them a sense of sacrifice and achievement. It made them feel they were doing something to help reduce air pollution in Delhi. For those two weeks, the entire city and the entire country was talking about odd-even. The AAP government in Delhi was advertising the scheme, not just in Delhi but across India. It had even the international press eating out of its hands.
Any government programme that requires mass public participation helps the government become a talking point. How many citizens in Delhi would know whether or not the Delhi government has shut down the polluting power plants?
By now, we are familiar with these things because Narendra Modi uses such tricks a lot. Demonetisation, similarly, gave people a sense of sacrifice and contributing to a cause; it made sure everyone knows of Modi’s fight against black money; when it started failing, the Modi government shifted goalposts and said it was never about black money; and when it completely failed, people still said, ‘At least Modi is trying’.
Similarly, the odd-even scheme never reduced any pollution, but people felt Arvind Kejriwal is at least trying. Just like demonetisation, the goal-post was shifted from pollution to traffic congestion. How could people blame Arvind Kejriwal for the failure of the idea when people had themselves bought the idea with great enthusiasm?
In other words, odd-even was a policy failure but a political success. The Kejriwal government and the Aam Aadmi Party, of course, cherry-picked data and showed studies to prove pollution had reduced, but there were a similar number of studies that showed pollution did not reduce. Weather is a key factor in checking the pollution levels in Delhi. So, when the weather is kind, the Kejriwal government takes credit. When the weather is bad, everyone else is to be blamed.
Gimmicks work only once
The gimmick started to come apart with round two of the odd-even scheme in the second fortnight of April 2016. People were less enthusiastic about the scheme, and more willing to take out their car against the rules. Sales of new and second-hand cars went up. Traffic de-congestion was no longer as visible as in January. Everyone could see pollution wasn’t coming down. A frustrated Gopal Rai, then-minister for transport in the Delhi government, blamed the media for creating a “wrong perception” that odd-even round two had failed. He even went on to say that pollution was rising because somebody was deliberately causing a lot of fires in Delhi’s landfills just to sabotage odd-even.
— AAP (@AamAadmiParty) April 19, 2016
It was clear that the odd-even gimmick was no longer sustainable. Gimmicks work only once. Imagine Narendra Modi doing demonetisation again.
But the Kejriwal government was caught in a trap. Having declared odd-even a success in reducing pollution (and traffic), how could it not implement it again in 2017? That’s when the National Green Tribunal said that two-wheelers and women drivers could not be exempted. Unlike car-owners, most of whom are presumed to be BJP voters, the AAP cannot risk it with those who navigate the city on two-wheelers. They don’t have the financial strength to suffer odd-even. Taking an auto, even if it’s available, would cost a lot more than driving a bike. It’s another matter that two-wheelers are actually more polluting, but the Delhi government is after politics, not policy.
“If need arises…”
The Kejriwal government was just not ready for odd-even round three. It couldn’t even arrange temporary extra buses. (Even after five years, the Kejriwal government has failed to solve the acute bus shortage in Delhi.) Besides, it knew that the public had lost patience with the odd-even gimmick since the skies were still smoggy. If odd-even could turn grey skies into blue, the public would demand it themselves.
When the Kejriwal government had to file a review petition before the National Green Tribunal so that it may allow all the politically sensitive exemptions, the Delhi government representative reached the NGT hearing late. The tribunal wondered if the AAP government’s claim of filing a review petition was only aimed at the media. The tribunal also said, “It seems you just want to reduce vehicles from roads… What is the basis of exemptions if you want to improve air quality?”
The AAP government withdrew odd-even in 2017 with the excuse that it could not compromise on the safety of women. In September 2018, the Supreme Court stayed the NGT order. The Kejriwal government was now left with no excuse but to implement the gimmick. So, it just went quiet. As pollution peaked and smog entered people’s homes, Kejriwal said, “If the need arises, we’ll implement the odd-even scheme.” Clearly, the “need” never arose.
After Diwali or after Chhath Puja?
Public memory is short. People have now forgotten what a spectacular failure odd-even was at its intended purpose, reducing pollution. The Delhi assembly election is scheduled in February, and this entire winter we will once again talk about the smog. Before anyone says ‘Arvind Kejriwal is doing nothing’, he has brought back the odd-even gimmick. Ditto for other measures aimed at showing ‘I’m doing something’: distributing pollution masks, holding laser light shows to make people not burst Diwali crackers. Why didn’t any of these happen when it wasn’t an election year?
Speaking of Diwali, it is interesting that Kejriwal said, “Pollution is at its peak during this period due to stubble burning and Diwali firecrackers.” Diwali is on 27 October. We know that pollution levels go up the morning after Diwali. Kejriwal says odd-even is an emergency measure. So why not start odd-even from Monday, 28 October? Why 4 November? Could it be because 3 November is Chhath Puja, and the Purvanchali voter should not face any inconvenience?
4 questions for Arvind Kejriwal
Before another round of odd-even is imposed upon us, Arvind Kejriwal must answer these questions.
First, if odd-even reduces pollution by 10-13 per cent as he claims, why did he not implement an odd-even in 2018? Were our lungs not valuable to him in a non-election year?
Second, if odd-even reduces pollution, why doesn’t he impose it for all three winter months, from November to January?
Third, if odd-even is only for peak pollution days, who says 4-15 November are peak pollution days? Peak days can vary according to weather and can change drastically overnight.
Fourth, according to the Graded Response Action Plan, the odd-even car rationing for private vehicles has to come into force automatically when pollution levels stay at “severe plus” category for 48 hours or more. So why is Arvind Kejriwal forcing odd-even upon us on pre-decided days? Just so that people may say, ‘At least he’s trying’?
Views are personal.