Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Odd Even Rule

It has been quite a few days since the first announcement of the odd-even rule to rid Delhi of the scourge of pollution. I have been trying to turn a blind eye to the proposal. However, the idea exchange published by The Indian Express has left me no option.

It has been realized by our ministers that drastic measures are needed to fight pollution. In fact, now that our ministers-in-charge are inspired by the Stockholm model, that day is not far when we Delhiites will cycle to work, see clear skies, and breathe clean air, and in the process bond with the fellow denizen who is now unseen as we are trapped by our cars, stuck in unending traffic snarls, only to reinforce to this fellow denizen our social status. Of course, all this good will happen only if we listen to our good hearted do-no-harm visionary armed-with-data ministers. And yes, a death or two of a rich fat myopic selfish car owning denizen, when he/she bikes to work alongside with the less privileged who have been riding the bike for lack of alternatives, roll of a die at birth that returned even when they had bet on odd, will take us to Stockholm heaven sooner.

While I am not surprised by what the ministers are up to, I am a bit saddened by the reaction to the policy. Of course, I have only a very small sample of reactions. The one reaction that is most common and that I find the most disheartening is that at least they are trying to do something. As if it is no longer important what is being tried as long as something is being tried. The intervention by the Govt. is arbitrary at best, and one that is backed by no support in data, and banks on force for it to have any chance of success at all. The only data that I have heard of is one which states that vehicles are hardly the big problem. In fact, the big problems are already covered under violations of the law, for example, burning of garbage.

In fact, based on the ideas shared in the idea exchange, it seems that our ministers are less interested in performing the less glamorous job of building pedestrian pathways, painting lanes, providing well lit streets, building cycle tracks that are safe, making sure that the lights at crossings work and are in sync with the other lights, garbage collection occurs so that none needs to be burnt, that the denizens have comfortable choices of public transport, and last but not the least, ensuring that flagrant abuse of law is stopped. They seem to be convinced that there is no point in doing much of it before they discipline us. They must shock us into action.

To me our dear ministers are most interested in the glamorous job of social engineering, rather than solving the problems on the ground. And they are certain that they will get away by simply stating that the situation is drastic and drastic situations call for drastic measures. To support their ideas they say that they have been told by competent sources that even small interventions like car free days have reduced the pollution by 50%! Dear ministers, if the situation is so dire why not make all government employees go on forced leave for a week or two. Let us poor and hapless denizens breathe.

Of course, all the grand plans must be cloaked in the veil of public action. So do hand us the app to tell you where the garbage is in this filthy city of ours. The filth only we can see and not your holiness. Oh of course, we shall also snap the crook who drives with an odd number on an even day and vice versa.

Dear ministers, your idea of bottom up seems to be one that believes in making an example, shaming, harassing us poor denizens into action to make your grand plan, which of course is for our own good, see great success. May I suggest, dear ministers, that bottom up change is achieved by setting examples at personal cost and not by making examples of others at any cost to achieve a grand vision of one's own. So please stop using words like public action and bottom up change.

Dear minister, may I dare suggest, that people, rich and poor, make tradeoffs and that those who go to work in their cars do not necessarily do so to uphold their status in the society. Same is true for those who burn garbage. While none of them are saints, and all of us are self-centered, maybe we ought to start with a position that these people are reasonable people and do not make their choices with the goal of harming the rest. So they do not pollute for the heck of it. They don't enjoy getting stuck in traffic snarls. They do not relish the stresses of commuting in Delhi. In fact, they would love more comfortable choices and have, without the need of force, embraced what is best for themselves and often also for the rest. The metro swelling at peak hours, the buses that are bursting at their seams are in contrast to your seeming supposition that Delhiites are unwilling to give up their car or their personal mode of transport. In fact, your diagnosis is way off the mark. It is more than likely that you have confused the symptom (of too many vehicles) for the disease. Maybe you want to give rest to your grand ambitions and get to work to solve the problems on the ground.

Why not take small and steady steps? If the metro can handle more, why wait till Jan 1? If more buses can be introduced and you are sure you can get bus lanes to work (let's make them bus and carpool lanes), then where is the need for another monstrosity of a law? How about removing at least some of the road bottlenecks? The average commute in distance is not that long in Delhi. It is the ridiculous amount of time it can take by road that exacerbates pollution. Often, this is because of a mix of bad engineering, lack of lanes, slow traffic occupying fast lanes, vehicle breakdowns, road work at the wrong hours, lack of organized parking (let's start with marking the parking spaces clearly), and  traffic law violations by a few. In fact, you may have observed that on some of the arterial roads many keep moving in a straight line. So, yes, not all people are a problem. Simpler measures that do not harass must suffice.

Oh, by the way, I am not saying that pollution is not a problem. I am also not saying that *we* should not do anything about it. I am also eager for new solutions. However, this idea of yours is at best a terrible one-size-fits-all that banks on no evidence and too much force. It is as if you are more interested in your whims see the light of day than working toward a less polluted Delhi.

Also, in case you didn't not already figure, if the policy is given a long run, the one to be hurt most is the not-so-rich car owner. Especially if he is law abiding. He will likely switch to a two wheeler to ferry his family or will be forced to sweat his way through overburdened public transport and fickle minded auto rickshaws to do his daily chores. The rich ones may already have more than one car or may simply buy another cheap one or the needed number plate.

Of course, dear minister, I know that your magical wand of whims will take care of any problems caused by your current whims. And please do make sure that I have the sweet reassuring voice of the chief minister ring in my ears to remind me that all this is after all for my very own good.