Delhi appeared almost unrecognisable during the days of the odd-even rule, when evenings appeared livable, devoid of traffic snarls and as if, in the midst of a holiday season or a citywide general strike. Delhi is the world’s second largest densely populated city after Tokyo. The populations of some of the European towns do not even add up to a couple of lakhs, though Delhi boasts more than 2.5 crore residents. No wonder, the first fortnight of the New Year transformed Delhi into a dream city.
I often cover my routine evening drives through Delhi in an hour-and-half, though now I did it in barely 20 minutes, which is why I find the odd-even scheme almost magical. This was tried and tested in Beijing a few years ago with overwhelming success, and appeared to work in Delhi on Day 1, though, to start with, so many of us remained sceptical. I remember crossing path with a journalist friend at the state-run Doordarshan Kendra, who informed me that he’d taken the metro to reach office, a first in years. It is good to see that a constructive move has been made to make Delhi pollution free and most Delhiites endorse the plan.
Global studies earlier showed Beijing and now Delhi as the world’s most polluted city. It’s high time that city government draws up a sustained and viable campaign to clean up the mess, for which, several foolproof measures can be initiated. For starters, it should ban old diesel cars, as these are among the biggest sources of pollution. Cigarettes are no longer the prime cause of lung cancer; carcinogens concentrated in the atmosphere are far more lethal. I don’t remember a day when I walked Delhi’s forever busy streets breathing freely, or without coughing. A large number of citizens have taken to wearing masks sold at neighbourhood chemists, even as the city stays shrouded by permanently looming smog. Haunted by the poisonous air, we no longer get to enjoy the city’s fabulous winter.
Let there be longer queues at the metro. Let there be more public buses. Let the upper class and upper middle class keep aside their vanity and take to public transport. Let separate cycle tracks run parallel to the main carriageways and the citizens pedal to office. Delhi’s face will change for the better.
Citizens across Europe are looked up to for cycling to work. Berlin’s streets have been redesigned with cycling tracks that are not encroached upon by rush hour cars. Even ministers in Stockholm ride to work. Public representatives have the moral conviction to lead by way of example. Delhi needs to catch up with the world’s foremost modern civilisations. And the government’s top echelons must set the example to make this happen, instead of spending billions to treat bronchial ailments, as catastrophic death stares citizens in their faces.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who masterminded the move, set a precedent, driving on alternate cars to work, as his own car sported an odd number; the tourism minister bicycled to office. Kejriwal was strict about not extending privileges based on citizens’ social standing, considering that Delhi is home to thousands of VIPs. I too chose to stay indoors every alternate day of the odd-even fortnight, as my car sports an even number plate. Though I have a security detail to escort me all over the city, I never felt it necessary to drag my VIP mooring by driving out on days when my car was meant to idle. I live in this city under a constant threat from fundamentalists without whom I would love to bicycle around the city’s lovely roads every day, irrespective of whether the odd-even rule was in force or not.
Yet, Delhi being Delhi, I was overwhelmed to note the scale of corruption in Delhi to help citizens bend the rules, despite the Herculean effort to clean up the city. In this country, the corrupt always have the last word. Fuel stations were busy selling illegal CNG stickers for cars that don’t run on natural gas. And desperate citizens, who don’t think twice about burning up lakhs on the latest fuel guzzlers, got busy buying those stickers. I also noticed certain citizens driving around with the wrong number plate, despite the concession made only to self-driving women, CNG cars and for medical emergency. Who knows if these citizens were content at breaking the rule by paying a hefty Rs 2,000 fine? It’s sad that such scoundrels don’t understand how big the problem of pollution is.
It’s also unfortunate that well-known global brands selling diesel cars have been nagging about the Supreme Court-imposed ban on sale of higher capacity diesel vehicles in the national capital, when everybody knows that such cars are a menace. It’s time that the carmakers adopt social and ecological consciousness instead of racing to capture market and chase profit.
All this when, a majority of Delhi’s residents actually found it wise to wholeheartedly stick with the odd-even plan making the experiment a grand success.