Odd Even Dobara: Why will it succeed this time and everytime?

With fewer than 1000 defaulters fined on the first day from a combined Delhi car population of 24.9 lac vehicles and an Air Quality Index of 82 which means moderate air quality at 7pm, we can again safely say that the #OddEven scheme implemented by the Delhi government is a success. Forget the naysayers, when hashtags like #OddEven, #OddEvenBegins and #OddEvenDobara start trending on twitter and people post pictures of near empty roads on social media there is little doubt left.

The run up signals to this round saw no funny memes or jokes on social media and little or no criticism on broadcast and print media as were absent the funny one liners on radio or in roadside conversations on Odd-Even formula. What changed? Was it because this year in January when it was first implemented, in spite of the widespread skepticism, Delhi’ites overwhelmingly chose to follow the Odd-Even scheme announced by the government to reduce the heightened air pollution levels?

Was it the success of the last experiment which gave people confidence or do people genuinely believe that the Odd-Even is there to reduce pollution levels thereby deducing that “Delhi’ites really care for their environment”?

It is very difficult to answer the above in the absence of a detailed research yet in answering, it would be easy to jump to a deduction which then would be fraught with consequences.

Let’s look at some of the reasons why the formula succeeded the last time around. Some of the reasons were

1) Pollution: WHO had put Delhi as the most polluted air in the world among major cities. With pollution on the center stage, the affected people wholeheartedly supported the scheme and advocated it to their friends and relatives. Also, pollution is a non political secular issue hence no political party wanted to be seen opposing a scheme that would reduce pollution.

2) Level Playing Field: To send a strong message to the people of Delhi, CM and his cabinet decided to carpool or take public transport to work. In fact, the first visuals of January 1, 2016, showed the CM and his cabinet carpool and use public transport.

3) Penalty: A fine of rupees two thousand for breaking the odd-even rule was a good deterrence, but in Delhi, we have seen that fines are not effective deterrence for drivers. It seems the strict implementation with broadcast and social media keeping a watchful eye did the trick.

4) Advertisement and Public Relations: The high decibel TV debates got the subject gaining considerable traction.

5) Role of Social Media

6) Children as Brand Ambassadors

We could also say for the last time around, Delhi’ites also saw a government and a political party take a tough decision, one which could go against their political capital yet meant a better quality of the life for Delhi’ites. They looked at it as a thing of temporary individual hardship but a larger collective good, the right to clean air and hence complied. As Shiv Visvanathan wrote “There was enthusiasm, confusion and yet a strange confidence that something new was coming into being. Emissions were no longer a technical or a bureaucratic issue but one where governance and citizenship combined to decide issues of lifestyle, democracy and the future. The city had become one and media become both a pedagogue and storyteller.”

So this is what changed this time around?

1) Confidence and Aspiration: The first experiment was such an overwhelming success that people from Delhi wanted more. Pollution was an issue but people also understood that with reduced vehicles and a faster travel time they actually contributed towards environment as less traffic jams meant less fuel wastage and hence less pollution. It became no longer about just pollution but something more. It was about reaching work on time and about an improved quality of living. It was as if everybody had a stake in the success of the formula.

2) Political Leadership: People want leadership and they want a strong leadership to help ameliorate their sufferings. They also want fairness in the game. People want to believe when their leaders and political parties say something. However years of rhetoric and no action have made them skeptic. Last time around they saw the local leaders follow the scheme they liked it. They liked their chief minister as the first citizen to also follow a rule he made for the common citizens.

3) Ease of Business: The scheme is easy to follow. Odd last digit on a number plate of a vehicle on odd days and even number on even days. Sunday is an off day. CNG and women drivers are exempted. This time around the complication by bringing the school children in school dress might create some misgivings but for a huge city like Delhi with an inefficient public transport such misgivings are bound to rise.

4) Implementation and Administration: The concept of a challan or fine not only works as deterrence to the violators it also denotes the presence of the state as well as the helps showcase a level playing field. The governance in the country has been lax in the implementation of various rules especially concerning motor vehicles that we are so often called a “soft state” where the powerful are able to break laws with impunity. As was seen during the January 2016 experiment and as we see now, the defaulters are penalized inspite of class or political affiliations. This gives confidence to the average road user and others who now becomes a willing stakeholder and adds their voice to the growing optimism which further fuels the scheme.

5) Advertisement and Public Relations: The advertisement has the CM explicitly give the city and its people credit. The CM goes on to say “The whole world is talking about the odd-even experiment in Delhi and the world is wondering how Delhites complied and hence are today the toast of the world”, which gives the stakeholders a sense of pride and a desire to succeed again. The PR adds on to the discourse, the message being very clear, the scheme is meant to reduce traffic, make commuting comfortable and fast and thereby reduce pollution.

6) Pollution: In fact pollution is no longer the central agenda this time around but the ease of commuting and faster commuting. Logically, the people understood with faster commuting and reduced traffic jams the pollution would come down.

The odd-even experiment in January and its reimplementation augers well for the country and show a way forward for the concept of participatory democracy. In this media immersive society of the 21st century with the coming about of web 3.0, citizens can easily be made to participate effectively in governance. As modern governance is complicated especially for a diverse country like India, the more the hands on deck, the better the chance of an experiment succeeding provided it is well thought out in line with global best practices.

Odd-Even was not a rabbit from a black hat of a magician. It’s been implemented the world over and the Delhi government tweaked it for local conditions like keeping two wheelers out of it as well as women drivers. This bore well for the experiment since the public transport needs to be beefed up.

Hence with two successes and a ever growing demand by various people on social media and now even by traffic corps for odd-even to be made regular, every month for 15 days, I don’t think its efficacy will reduce.

The law of diminishing returns does kick in yet the advantages of reduced traffic and a temporary discomfort far outweighs the lethargy which sets in on continuous reimplementation. The danger of people buying a second car to circumvent the rule is also exaggerated as the ones with the means for more than one car would have already done so. If the second one happens to be a CNG or a hybrid one it augurs well for the city.

As the government seems to be already moving on augmenting the bus services and as phase 3 of the metro kicks in I feel the need for repeated odd-even will go down and will be kicked in only when the pollution again goes alarmingly high. Meanwhile steps like vacuum cleaning, opening of the KMP expressway in getting trucks to bypass Delhi and greening the sidewalks will also improve air quality. The government also needs to bring in a policy on hybrid cars making their adoption easier.

Till then be happy zooming around in Delhi.

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