Against all expectations, Delhi has passed the test of the odd-even plan without acrimony or incident, and its citizens are to be felicitated at a public event on Sunday. Did pollution fall during the last fortnight? Did the elderly, asthmatics and children breathe easier? The debate on such questions will continue, with supporters and sceptics hurling data and technicalities at each other. But Delhi has nevertheless passed the test, in the sense that the rubric of the debate about pollution has changed. Breathable air is no longer the government’s sole responsibility. It’s a public issue, a citizen’s problem in which everyone who lives in Delhi has become a stakeholder. The libertarian argument that driving is the citizen’s right and that it’s the government’s responsibility to make it possible now seems absurdly quaint.
The change in the air is palpable. Yesterday, Kejriwal ended his thank-you speech with an appeal to continue the odd-even plan voluntarily. Pointedly, he thanked women drivers who had left their cars home, though they were not legally required to do so. Clearly, he senses the challenge that his government must now face — how to leave behind a coercive culture based on fines and subtle shaming and pivot towards a voluntary movement.
The government claims a reduction of 35 per cent in vehicular traffic over the last fortnight, which has made possible higher efficiencies in public transport, making commuting easier for everyone. However, it would be impossible to keep up the momentum without voluntary commitment. Signs of public support have been observed on social media, and it’s generally agreed that something must be done. The odd-even scheme has clarified who must do it — the citizen, with a little help from the government. Now, the challenge is to transform what looks like a duty into a matter of civic pride.