Kejriwal Scores Big with His Odd and Even Initiative

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.

Ad-hoc solutions

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.

Empathy among politicians

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.

This piece first appeared in the Hindustan Times

  • ashok759

    A worthwhile initiative to sensitise citizens to an important issue. The people of Delhi have risen to the occasion.

  • Manish

    His initiative towards people and business are mind boggling… from water, electricity, health, tax collections, education, transparency in govt dealing with business all point to one direction. India has found a true leader to make the giant leap of faith.

  • Anand Ranjan

    Why the hell are you applauding him??? What has he done? He has done nothing to improve the public transport and mandatory forced delhites to abide by the rules. I am sorry Delhites have not risen to the occasion—they have been forced to rise to the occasion (Who wants to pay a INR 2000 challan everyday)..Moreover women are allowed to drive, two wheelers are allowed to drive —as if they don’t pollute. Didn’t he do any research prior to implementing this scheme. The IIT Kanpur report which cited that cars contribute less than 10% of the pollution was released ages ago. Didn’t he find time to read it before implementing it. Moreover this was only a trail period if this happens for long … than the rich will buy a new vehicle and the poor a pre-owned one….

  • Rohit Sinha

    Thank god no bhakts are here.

  • csjacob

    This is a good initiative; may be that it didn’t make much difference to the pollution; but certainly it resulted in an increase in the road space and sped up the traffic. It is clear from the photograph that nearly all the road space was occupied by cars leaving little space for the public transport on which majority of the people depend upon. If the govt could put more public transport on the road many would be willing to give up their cars. The odd / even needs to be made a permanent feature and extended to 2-wheelers and women.

  • S.Goel

    Fair enough it has reduced traffic on the road but what about the workers, shopkeepers,etc who have little means of transport and will only work or open shops thre or four times a week,wont that reduce productivity .Further if he adds another 6000 buses on the roads of Delhi and does away with the odd even formula then the traffic on the roads of Delhi will be unimaginable .He should think of contructing more B.R.Ts not like the one in Delhi which is a fiasco but plan it like the one which they have in Gujarat

  • K.Prashant

    Well written article! Pollution is definitely not an electoral issue till now and this rule has brought the issue into media and even though people criticize it atleast they are discussing it and thinking about such issues. I appreciate the writer’s effort to sound neutral about the merits of the rule and would have been insightful to add examples of how the scheme ‘involved’ the citizens.