Odd-Even Plan: Pollution has given the AAP a virtuous cause to fight for

The idea that odd and even numbered cars should ply on alternate days to lower emissions has been widely implemented elsewhere in the world but it could have been specially designed to deal with Delhi’s elite. To introduce a scheme that systematically discriminates against a whole category of entitled desis is hard; to do it without giving the members of that category grounds for existential grievance amounts to genius. Think of ‘post-Mandal politics’: a whole epoch of Indian political history is named after the savarna Indian’s sense of being hard done by.

This is not to say that car-happy dilli-wallahs are taking this lying down. In restaurants, offices, common rooms, gymnasiums and resident welfare associations, paunchy men and perfumed women are doing their best to stoke collective indignation but it’s hard to get worked up about being singled out as an odd number when your even-numbered neighbour gets singled out in her turn.

There is a case for arguing that the abstract arbitrariness of the odd-even alternation inaugurates a new, rigorously secular politics where citizens are classified as types of numbers, thus avoiding the conflicts of an identity politics defined by caste or religious community. The only other instance of this that I can think of is the practice of boarding passengers by numbered rows into aeroplanes but it isn’t nearly as egalitarian because the privileged in business class are boarded first. No, this could be the start of something big: populism by numbers.

It isn’t a coincidence that the Aam Aadmi Party was the first party to import the notion into Indian politics. AAP does urban politics in a way that no other party does in this country. It looks for issues that it can use to act out its engagement with the People. Its inaugural blockbuster was corruption, which is the perfect populist issue because everyone is a victim of corruption while no one’s ever complicit in it. Pollution, pitched as the degradation of the environment by irresponsible human beings, is, like corruption, low-hanging fruit for a populist party: everyone’s against it, because everyone is damaged by it. In the context of climate change and the Paris conference, this self-interest is ennobled by a larger concern for the planet’s welfare.

I could be doing the AAP’s leadership an injustice but I don’t think Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia spend much time fretting about global warming. They, like other citizens, see Delhi’s noxious air as a problem (think of Kejriwal’s cough); they also see it as a virtuous cause that no one can publicly oppose. That being so, by assuming the leadership of this cause (instead of letting some agitating non-governmental organization take the credit), the AAP is back where it always wishes to be: in the vanguard of virtue.

All the arguments against the odd-and-even number scheme are specious. We know that as an emergency measure it substantially reduces emissions. The scheme’s great rhetorical advantage is that everyone understands that if you get half of Delhi’s two million cars off the roads every day, it’s bound to make a difference. The counter-arguments are convoluted, counter-intuitive, wrong and selfish. A talking head on a television show claimed that a decline in private cars would be offset by an increase in taxis. Even if this were true, it would still be an improvement because taxis in Delhi are powered by compressed natural gas which is a cleaner fuel than either petrol or diesel. I overheard a young woman at a bar complain that the rule would put women’s safety at risk because they would have to exchange the security of their cars for the uncertainties of Delhi’s public transport system. It is an argument that only Khan Market mesdames can make without embarrassment or a thought for the millions of women who board Delhi’s buses and metro trains every day.

This insulated narcissism is indefensible and AAP’s leaders know it is. In an interview with The Indian Express, Satyendar Jain, Delhi’s public works department minister, argued that the case for public transport was also the case for democratic sociability. One of the disadvantages of driving a car, he argued, was that “…you have detached yourself from public life… We’ve created a world in which we get out from our homes in cars, then go to office. We don’t meet anyone, except the same people… We have no space for unknown people in our lives, we don’t want to meet anyone. This is an opportunity for society to grow, to travel in buses and cars and become humans”.

Homilies from desi politicians are always infuriating, but Jain is making an irrefutable point: car owners in India are a small pampered minority who can’t be allowed to set the terms of the debate. Being a paid-up member of the AAP he can’t help being pious, so he adds that getting out more is good for you, it helps make you human. The trouble is, that’s true too. There simply isn’t a large argument to be made against the slew of measures announced by the Delhi government.

There is some evidence that Kejriwal’s government built up to this announcement. There were two ‘car-free’ days in different parts of the National Capital Region, one centred on Shahjahanabad and the other on Dwarka. In themselves they were grandstanding events focused on Arvind Kejriwal riding a bicycle, but they now seem ways of signalling that the government was serious about managing vehicular traffic and getting cars off the road. The timing of the trial run of the odd-even scheme (the first two weeks of January) is clearly intended to target the smoggiest part of Delhi’s winter when citizens are most amenable to the idea that something drastic needs to be done.

Can it be implemented? It’s worth remembering that in the late 1990s, Delhi’s public transportation managed an enormous transition: the change over from petrol and diesel to CNG. When it was first mooted, the plan was widely scorned as impracticable and there were teething pains through the transition. But it worked. In 2001, India Today reported that from 1998 the “concentration of suspended particulate matter (SPM), carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide at the busy ITO intersection has come down by 15 per cent, 34.5 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.”

There’s no reason why Kejriwal’s plan shouldn’t make a difference in the same way. There will be more articulate opposition to it because the transition to CNG didn’t affect Delhi’s car owners; the people who bore the brunt of that change were auto-rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers and public corporations like the Delhi Transport Corporation. Technocratic solutions that disrupt the lives of others are viewed benevolently by desi elites. Solutions that disrupt their daily routines, on the other hand, are unacceptable, impractical invasions of citizens’ lives by a nanny State.

Criticism of the scheme has been an exercise in pie-pitching, having a go hoping something will stick. The scheme won’t work because Delhi Police is corrupt. It won’t work because the dilli-wallah is corrupt. It won’t work because the Central government will sabotage it. It won’t work because it’s a publicity stunt by a populist party.

The truth is that it might work because it has been mooted by a populist party that will do its damnedest to make the scheme seem like a virtuous crusade. It might actually convince Delhi’s citizens that they are volunteers in a great cause. Delhi’s Bus Rapid Transit experiment died an unnatural death because the Congress government that sponsored it didn’t have the populist chops to take its case to the People. Making political capital out of single issue campaigns is something Kejriwal does rather well. He might yet show our pundits that knowingness isn’t prescience.

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