The new year began with a day for the odd. And an odd day as well. The usually unruly Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses stuck to a lane on the left, small bands of school children lined the roads with placards, civil defence volunteers stood at traffic junctions with flowers. There were visibly fewer cars on the road and for 12 hours, most of their licence plates ended with a 1, 3, 5, 7 or a 9.
Day One of the Delhi government’s environment intervention of the odd-even road-rationing policy kicked in at 8 am and two hours later, the beaming face of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said it all. “Delhi has done it! Reports so far v encouraging. Delhiites! U give me hope that U are capable of achieving big challenges,” he tweeted.
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A few hours later, Kejriwal took to Twitter again, this time with the opening lines of John Lennon’s Imagine: “You may say I’m a dreamer But I’m not the only 1 I hope some day you’ll join us And the world will be as one.”
The start may have been lyrical but the Chief Minister knows that the true test will happen on Monday. Friday was January 1, a restricted government holiday and typically unhurried. It is expected to stay that way on the first even day on Saturday while Sundays are exempted from the policy.
Come January 4, a Monday, and the force of the combined bureaucracy of the Union and Delhi governments, harried (and often late) office commuters and the backbone that carries Delhi’s thriving economy – services – will bear down on the capital’s roads, buses and metro.
To know, who are all exempt from the rule, watch this video.
But Monday morning blues could wait today, at least, as Delhi stood up to be counted, odd by odd. As The Indian Express found during a 278-km journey on car, by public transport and foot, covering six points where air pollution is monitored.
With few police pickets, little threat of penalty and an appeal to one’s conscience, Delhi had begun the fight against air pollution. Timewise snapshots:
8:30 am Karol Bagh: In an odd-numbered car
It takes just a few minutes to find a parking spot in what is arguably Delhi’s largest automobile spare parts market. In itself, this is perhaps a testament to the road-rationing policy. Ganesh Jha, who has serviced a municipal corporation parking lot here since 1995, gestures to both sides of the road. “You came and found parking. On any other day, you would have circled this area for an hour at least and finally paid Rs 100 to a tout to park your car,” he says.
What do people think about the Odd-Even formula? Watch this video.
As he speaks, another odd-numbered car drives into the parking lot. The driver, a shopkeeper who knows Jha well, smiles, steps out and asks, “How is this funny number system going?”
“Look, I do not have to take your keys to park. Put the car where you like,” Jha says.
Jha has few complaints but wants more policemen on duty. “I was told not to let even-numbered cars enter. I did and one of them threatened me. I cannot do this alone. It’s not worth my life,” he says.
10 am Shadipur: In an odd-numbered car
At a traffic light, six civil defence volunteers wait patiently for the lights to turn red. As soon as it does, a lanky volunteer, barely out of his teens, walks across the stop line. He is looking for violators and finds a Skoda right in front.
The volunteer walks to the front and stares at the driver. He pulls out a mobile phone, snaps off a shot and points an accusatory finger. The driver steps out to argue but turns to find that the volunteer had been joined by at least six others. Three are bigger than him. He jumps the red light, makes a quick U-turn and zooms away.
12:30 pm: Aboard the Green Line Metro towards Kirti Nagar
It’s more choked than usual is the refrain on this train. Vishal, a marketing executive, is on his first Metro ride. “I am an executive for a pharma company and need to travel more than 100 km a day across the city to see different doctors. I just graduated from a motorcycle to a car and this has happened,” he says. But you can’t sense any anger. His daughter Divya turns three this year. “She has some breathing issues, the doctor says. She coughs at night and catches a cold often. That’s why I bought a car. And now I am told it’s cars that cause this,” he says.
2 pm: On a cycle rickshaw towards the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS)
From the Jhilmil Metro station, it’s a nightmare crossing the road. The station is on the Grand Trunk Road and vehicles of all sizes and sources of power barrel unchecked towards the highway.
Ajit Singh is unfazed as he weaves across the traffic junction. “Today I only have to deal with buses and autos. Usually there are hundreds of cars on this road at this time and they have no respect for anybody. The bus drivers are government servants, they cannot kill you and the autos are too small. I have heard that cars are banned today. It’s a good thing, means more business for me. I want to move to an e-rickshaw now. My bones are old and I cannot keep cycling anymore,” Singh says.
4 pm: On foot in Anand Vihar
This is the most polluted hotspot in Delhi. For most of this month, it has stayed in the severe category on the Air Quality Index (AQI) and particulate matter levels here regularly shoot to 500 µg/m3 – the highest measurable. It also houses an inter state bus terminus and at any given time houses dozens of DTC buses.
As an air-conditioned DTC bus pulls into the station, a family of three ask to be let in. The driver refuses and a fight ensues that ends with the mother slapping the driver.
The driver refuses to identify himself but says, “I have been on the road for almost 10 hours now and have to stay in the bus lane from which I cannot stray but into which anybody else can drive. And this woman refused to understand I am parking the bus. Thank God for this strange odd-even whatever. At least half the cars are off the roads.”
6 pm: At the Kirti Nagar Metro station
The crowds are unprecedented again, according to the regular line users. A group of boys hog the space in front of the sliding doors. They hop out at each station and jump back in at the last moment.
“It’s because of this Kejriwal. No cars on the road so they are using the metro,” says one. “Who knows. Who will leave an AC car to come on this metro,” chimes another. Says a third, “It’s easy to spot first-time riders. They cling to their wallets, looking around as if everything is strange, and sit in the ladies compartment and get thrown out.”