Has Delhi done it again? Just one year ago it voted to power, with an overwhelming majority, a three-year-old political party with almost no experience of running a government. This year, in spite of widespread scepticism, Delhiites overwhelmingly chose to follow the odd-even scheme announced by the government to limit the number of private vehicles plying on the road, thereby reducing air pollution.
The first criticism was predictably from the police who expressed their inability to monitor a scheme of such size, citing inadequate manpower. Reservations came from women, professionals and celebrities citing safety, lack of public transport and a general disruption in city life. The scheme was tweaked to exempt two-wheelers and single lady drivers to which there was further criticism. The government did not budge and the die was cast.
The tedious and often unnecessary criticism on national TV actually helped bring the pollution debate to the centre stage and into heated public discussion. The odd-even formula also brought the rich and poor, irrespective of caste, gender and religion on a common level playing field with respect to access of a common resource - clean air.
So what happened that the people of Delhi overcame their scepticism on all of the above counts and came together to wholeheartedly support the scheme? Why did car owners follow the scheme?
Many reasons could be attributed to this, some of the most apparent being:
1) Pollution: The World Health Organisation (WHO) had held Delhi to have the most polluted air in the world among major cities. With pollution on the centre stage, the affected people wholeheartedly supported the odd-even scheme and advocated it to their friends and relatives. Also, pollution is a non-political secular issue, and hence no political party wanted to be seen opposing a scheme that would reduce pollution.
Sometime later though, the argument graduated to whether the scheme would be able to significantly reduce pollution, or why two-wheelers, women drivers and VIP's were exempted from this scheme; showing increasing acceptability of the moot idea that reducing vehicles will reduce pollution.
2) Level playing field: To send a strong message to the people of Delhi, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his cabinet decided to use carpooling or take public transport to work. In fact, the first visuals of January 1, 2016, showed the chief minister and his cabinet carpooling and using public transport.
These were powerful images for Delhiites who are accustomed to politicians flouting with impunity the very laws they pass. This new code of conduct helped set up a trust between the people and the government. Extensive coverage by the broadcast and social media as well as visuals of defaulters being prosecuted added to the confidence levels.
3) Penalty: A fine of Rs 2,000 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 of the rule, with broadcast and social media keeping a watchful eye did the trick.
It was not that there were no violators. They were, however, few and far between. Pictures, from the first day of the coming into effect of the rule, of a lawmaker from the ruling party at the Centre defaulting and being challaned went viral. This provided a powerful disincentive for others to break the rule.
4) Public relations: The high decibel TV debates got the subject considerable traction. The Delhi government and the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) regularly debated the scheme on TV and social media. Noted writer Shiv Visvanathan noted: "Kejriwal announced his recipe while being honest enough to admit that may be he did not know how to cook the dish fully. He was tentatively vulnerable but he accepted responsibility. By admitting difficulties, he got the media and the people involved."
In fact, on the dry run of the scheme, that is on December 31, 2015 the Delhi government roped in school children, party volunteers and civil defence personnel and placed puppets of the Delhi chief minister (which went viral) at prominent intersections, educating drivers.
5) The test: The first day of the scheme saw a rather overwhelming response with very few defaulters and only over 100 challans issued. While naysayers thought the real test of the scheme would be on January 4, the first day of the new week after the year-end holiday season, the high level of compliance continued.
The scepticism gave way to cheer. There was an attempt by some to use social media to present fake pictures to criticise the scheme with one prominent TV channel airing those pictures without verification. The Delhi government and the ruling party, with the media in tow, quickly dismissed this attempt to derail the scheme.
6) Advertisement campaign: The resounding compliance bolstered the government and after the first few days of compliance a massive advertisement campaign was rolled out with chief minister Kejriwal taking over the airwaves, narrating the compliance experience of a civil defence volunteer. The message was that the scheme was about the citizens of Delhi, and the push was for convincing, rather than coercing them, to make the city greener.
7) Word of mouth: The PR and advertising effort was augmented with visuals of compliance, stark changes in traffic reduction, air quality readings showing a dip in pollution and shared experiences of individuals. Omar Abdulla the ex-chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir tweeted: "Saw a few violators of the #OddEvenScheme this morning but they are very much the exception to what seems to be working quite well."
8) Children as brand ambassadors: Using children to give out the message, getting them to stand at intersections on the first day and so on was a masterstroke. One has to be in Delhi to understand what is happening. Groups of people everywhere are busy discussing the odd-even scheme. Keeping a hawk eye on the number plates is the new pastime. Social media replicated people's excitement and enthusiasm.
Once when a large section of Delhi residents were convinced that there was a level playing field and that the all would comply, including the chief minister, and an added assurance that this was a 15-day trial to fight hazardous air pollution, people complied.
It may also have been that the traffic personnel who were responsible for the implementation and catching of defaulters felt empowered and stood solidly behind the scheme as they were the biggest beneficiaries of the reduced pollution levels.
The smartness of the scheme also involved keeping the schools closed during the period of implementation as a substantial school-based vehicular traffic, including cars to ferry children, were kept off the roads.
Ashish Khaitan, a member of the AAP and vice-chairman of the Delhi Dialogue Commission writes, "The political executive has always been shy of taking difficult policy decisions that may cause short-term pain for long-term gains, leaving it to the judiciary to carry out seemingly unpleasant executive functions."
Maybe it was the first time that Delhiites were seeing a political party taking a tough decision, one which meant a better quality of their lives. They looked at it as a thing of temporary individual hardship but a larger collective good, that is 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."
The battle of Delhi had been won, the war against pollution would be a long drawn out affair. There is a new hope in 2016, one for a new form of governance in India, that of greater participation by the citizens.
(Editor's note: The title of the article was changed post publishing.)