Delhi Should Have Given Its Citizens a Say in Traffic, Pollution Control Measures

Had the AAP government sought their opinion, perhaps the city’s citizens would have opted for bicycle lanes, more metro carriages, congestion charges or other initiatives instead of the odd-even scheme.

A pile-up of cars seen on a Delhi road. Credit: PTI

A pile-up of cars seen on a Delhi road. Credit: PTI

India has imported many ideas from abroad and tried to adapt them according to the local conditions. The odd-even scheme introduced by the Delhi government in January to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution is one such idea.

It will need at least a year to assess whether the system of restricting the circulation of cars with odd- and even-numbered licence plates to odd and even days really works. One thing is clear though, it was a top-down approach with the Delhi government cracking the whip on the city’s car driving population. The odd-even rule gave the impression that officials had no choice but to resort to drastic measures to make citizens do what was good for them. In reality, it was the residents of Delhi who were given no choice in deciding how to deal with a problem that deeply affects their wellbeing.

Belatedly and only for the second phase did the Delhi government consider consulting citizens on the implementation of the odd-even scheme. It is odd that the Aam Aadmi Party, which holds the reins of power in Delhi, didn’t proactively seek the common man’s opinion on such an important public issue.

A people initiative

I live in Switzerland where the opinion of citizens counts more than in most other places in the world. The political system of direct democracy allows citizens to launch nationwide people’s initiatives on any subject, which are then put to popular vote. If they get a majority of votes, the government has to implement them, even if they are against it.

Any Swiss citizen who collects at least 100,000 signatures in a span of 18 months can propose a people’s initiative. It is a double-edged sword, but at least it is held by the people who will eventually face the consequences of their decisions.

In March, Pro Velo, the Swiss bicycle advocacy association, collected enough signatures to propose an initiative to make Switzerland more bicycle friendly and put bicycles on the same level as other forms of road transport. One of the main arguments they offer is that it helps prevent traffic congestion in cities and helps reduce pollution. But what’s really interesting is the contrast between this bottom-up approach and the top-down one in Delhi over what basically amounts to the same issue.

While I don’t bike to work myself, many of my colleagues, including my boss, do. The arrival of electric bikes has made cycling even more popular, especially among the older age group and people living in hilly areas. There are around four million bicycles in Switzerland for a country of just over eight million inhabitants. According to Pro Velo, half of all car journeys cover a distance of only five kilometres. In theory, these could be replaced by bicycles if the right infrastructure is in place. All these conditions make more people on bicycles a legitimate solution for easing traffic jams and reducing pollution.

And it is these arguments that Pro Velo harnessed to collect over 100,000 signatures and that will eventually determine the fate of the initiative when it does come to a national vote. If it does pass, it would have received the thumbs up from the people twice, increasing the likelihood of it being a success on Swiss streets.

Nobody knows what solutions the enterprising people of Delhi would have come up with for the city’s serious traffic and pollution problem. Would they have also plumped for bicycle lanes or opted for other ideas like congestion charges, more metro carriages or even trams. It is a pity we’ll never find out.

Anand Chandrasekhar is a journalist at swissinfo.ch and is based in Bern, Switzerland.