Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Odd Even gone awry

By now, everybody in India, included those devastated and ignored by the Imphal Earthquake, know about Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal's latest pet project, the Odd Even Rule, to promote more efficient traveling practices and reduce air pollution in the national capital. Or so it was supposed to be. There is no doubt that Delhi is an urban nightmare, and the desire to do something about it is laudable. Indeed, thanks to some usual judicial overreach by the Supreme Court, it is even mandatory for the Delhi Government to do something about it.

If only it had remained like that. The first announcement of the Odd Even Rule came with the usual AAP-BJP slugfest, with the Congress also adding some (mostly ignored) noise. Swarajya explained how a similar scheme had led to self-defeating results in Mexico City. Others talked of limited successes elsewhere. Those who had long before left logic behind went with the tried and tested argument of "at least he is doing something yaar." However, aside from the rather Tughlaq-esque nature of the decision, it would have had an impact if vehicular traffic could've been kept off the roads. Not a huge impact, since Delhi has other sources of pollution, but certainly a significant one. And then came the bombshell: the Kejriwal government introduced a wide variety of exemptions to the rule - women (!), autos, taxis, two-wheelers (that form the bulk of traffic), VVIPs, diplomats, pooled cars, and much more. According to the chief of Delhi Police, of the 85 lakh vehicles on the road, 70 lakh were under some exemption or the other.

And that's when it all went bust. When over 80% of vehicles would be able to go about as usual, the Odd Even Rule was destined to fail. Despite the best attempts of AAP-friendly journalists to paint a pretty picture, data clearly showed that pollution had taken next to no hit - in fact, whatever little decline was observed could easily be accounted for under random variation (a term journalists would have never heard). Add to that the fact that comparing Jan 1, 2016 to Dec 31, 2015 made it an uncontrolled experiment, and it was clear that Kejriwal and his stormtroopers were determined to make the rule work by hook or by crook.

So, from a dictatorial but well-intended move to control pollution, it became a political slugfest that the media reveled in, people even saying that the Rule had worked 'despite Modi,' as if the PM has time to worry about Delhi's traffic. The Rule has done nothing to control pollution, but has made the lives of people on the Delhi Metro much worse, especially at Rajiv Chowk station, which was always overcrowded but became even more so once the rule kicked in. It has also added to the burden of the Delhi Traffic Police, which has to figure out whether a car had an exemption or was in fact breaking the law, and not block traffic at the same time. Perhaps sensing that the rule would not be popular once the noise of his stormtroopers died down, Kejriwal himself said that it would not go beyond Jan 15.

Thus, this whole episode shows how good intentions can be ruined by a politically irresponsible person who is given power. By trying to curb pollution but allowing umpteen exemptions at the same time, Kejriwal was shown that he can do anything for popularity. If data says that the Odd Even Rule can work, then it should have been applied without the exemptions, and that would've been fair. The way it was done, it was set up for failure, and nobody gained anything except maybe some academics who got a free experiment. As much as the media may try to show otherwise, it is clear that Kejriwal is nothing more than an opportunistic politician who cannot make hard decisions even with a 95% majority. Delhi is getting what it voted for. 

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