ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Oddly Even, or Evenly Odd

Pollution and the Death of a Grand Metropolis

G Arunima (arunima@jnu.ac.in) teaches at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

The odd-even car formula in Delhi has brought to the fore the class bias that always existed in the city. Can we learn from history to build a more just and equitable environment for all to live, or will we reinforce the old walls of inequality?

I am not a climate change expert. I am not an air pollution studies person. I am just a car using, possibly pollution contributing, middle class resident of Delhi, who deeply fears what is rapidly disappearing from the city—clean beautiful skies, starry nights, green leafy trees and fresh water bodies. This city, despite its teeming population and overcrowding, still has an abundance of greenery and foliage—in streets, parks, neighbourhoods, and amidst its myriad old monuments. 

Odd and Even Rule

So what changed this city? I have been reading, both in the press and on social media sites, people’s concerns regarding the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs here. Interestingly enough, this has been triggered by the Delhi government’s proposed experiment to introduce road rationing in Delhi by allowing cars with odd and even number plates to ply on alternate days, which targets the middle classes head-on, and makes them responsible towards civic life and the general well being of not just themselves and their families, but the city at large. Unused to this, several people are rehearsing predictable problems that the scheme will encounter (which, as it stands, certainly will)—from the absence of adequate public transport to the fear that the government would lack the will to see this through. After all, 15 days is scarcely adequate to even get a preliminary sense of the workability of a scheme that appears, at once, both bold and utterly fantastic.

Yet, underlying the concerns of many detractors is that they are being held responsible, and that middle class, SUV  (or just random car) owning, Delhi-ites will have to reorient their brains, and begin to live in ways in which millions in this city do on a routine basis. Suddenly, in a city where being punctual is meant only for the working classes that service all others’ homes, lifestyles and all, being on time has become of paramount importance! Until now no one thought of how the domestic workers, safai karmacharis, constant cleaners of localities and posher housing areas, gardeners, drivers, nannies, and so many others made it to their places of work—the homes of the middle/upper classes—“on time,” each and every day of the year. The worry only had been that their lateness would throw the lives of papa, mummy, baba and baby log into jeopardy. Now suddenly, not only must Delhi’s privileged get about their business on time, they need to take responsibility for this themselves. How unfair is that (they ask)?! 

Dismantling Public Transport

Many like me who grew up in Delhi in the 60s and 70s will remember a flourishing, functional, bus system. The Delhi Transport Union (DTU) managed this, and for years I have been hunting for some work that would direct me to understand how and why this collapsed. The little anecdotal evidence I have (the many uses of “lefty” families) is that the then government wished to break the union, leading to the change in the management structure. The DTU became the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC). Needless to say, this story needs far greater filling in. Suffice it to say here that until the late 90s, despite the decline setting in, the city did have a functioning bus system. By the early 2000s, this was to change. Looking back, it is pretty clear the kinds of interests that came together to kill what was a functioning public transport system in this city.

This face of liberalisation of the Indian economy focused on the middle class buyer, and what else to feed such aspirational dreams but the right to wield a four wheel drive! This was accompanied by that delightful device of finance capital, the interest free loan, that fulfils our consumer desires so beautifully. Within months, the transport demography of Delhi’s roads had changed. Sometime around that time, I heard on one of the many radio channels I hear routinely in my car, that there were at least 20 different kind of road users in the city. While for the radio jockey this was yet another jocular aside on Delhi’s chaotic traffic, what struck me was how this palimpsest like history of road use was a testimony to a different sense of access, and democracy, to public spaces.

Even today, one can at any given time see a rich diversity of road users—from cyclists, the usual set of fuel dependent two and four wheelers, to cycle rickshaws and horse drawn carts. The most affected by the presence of aggressive car drivers are the labouring men who deliver heavy retail items (from desert coolers and air conditioners in the summer, to all manners of other household items throughout the year) from shops to homes. Next to that are the elderly, the differently abled, and the very young, for whom Delhi's ever increasing road aggression (after all the phrase “road rage” entered our vocabulary only in this decade) can traumatise, and instill a fear for life of public spaces. 

In the changes then that must accompany the odd-even traffic rule is the building of wide and good pavements, roads that are not pot-holed death traps, and a greater number of cycle rickshaws that can service short distances. It would help if the governments' (state and central) would be focused on real development—ie on pavements and pedestrians and all other ordinary people and their needs, rather than cosying up to the builders’ lobbies that will certainly choke the city to death. After all, Delhi’s still reeling under the shock of the scams run during the Commonwealth Games. 

Looking at the Past

Some days back I took a friend from out of town to see Tughlaqabad—which, according to me, is the most beautiful medieval fort town of this now benighted city. Walking up and beyond the moat, through the main entrance, one enters what can only be described as a medieval dreamscape. The shrill noises of the city recedes, routine worries begin to disappear and soon one is walking across the stones and rubble of centuries past. Situated within a perimeter of nearly seven kilometres, this is possible one of the biggest forts in this city. As one walks further into Tughlaqabad, it becomes more and more magical. Large spaces, brambles and bushes, keekar (acacia) in abundance and a wide open sky that invites one to dream of times past. In between buffaloes from nearby villages can be found grazing, even as children from those places come and play cricket in their ready made “pitch.” The adults from their families go about their business, possibly keeping an eye on them, as indeed us, and keep everyone safe. This sense of proximity and sharing of historical and contemporary spaces was a fact of my growing up years in Delhi.

The city abounded in urban villages, and there was, for the want of a better word, an organic relationship between people and spaces. This also meant that Delhi even had fields where a large part of its seasonal vegetables would be grown by local farmers. In environmental terms it meant that plants, trees and water bodies were maintained by these responsible citizens of the city—its “villagers.”'. In terms of food safety, it meant that everyone ate truly “farm fresh” seasonal food. And in terms of civic life, everyone knew that the city was a democratic, shared, space where everyone had a right to live—if not in ways that were optimal or economically just, then at least in ways that involved more shared habits and lifestyles. 

Tughlaq was a mad dreamer, but also a great visionary. As always, history leaves us with fragments that make us wish for a better tomorrow, and what better way to make that a reality than wandering down the open spaces of bygone centuries. Delhi’s history has many beautiful examples that show how environmentally and aesthetically sustainable lives can be led. What better way to ensure that this grand city has a new future, than by looking back at its magnificent past? 

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