Last summer, during the height of the dengue outbreak in Delhi, the deputy chief minister of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Manish Sisodia, made spot visits to schools to check on their preparedness for dengue outbreaks. At a government boys’ school in north west Delhi, Sisodia found classrooms being used as parking lots for the vehicles of the faculty and staff. To anyone who lives in Delhi, Sisodia’s discovery would likely come as no surprise. In India's capital, while the rights to education, health and security are not always guaranteed, the car-owner’s right to parking has become almost inalienable.
Delhi is far friendlier to cars than it is to people. Vehicles operate in an elaborate feudal order on the city's roads: the size of your car, and the fact that you own one, demonstrates your relative power and dictates the right of way. Delhi has the highest percentage of road space of any major city in the country—space that has only increased over the past two decades with the construction of nearly 100 flyovers. In that time, the number of cars in the city has grown at roughly three times the rate of its population. But car users form a surprisingly small percentage of the city. Car trips form only 20 percent of all motor vehicle trips taken every day in Delhi, and at least 60 percent of all trips are made using public transport—buses, metro and auto rickshaws.
In this context, the Delhi government's recent “Odd-Even” experiment, whose second iteration concluded this Saturday, on 30 April, has proved—perhaps unintentionally—to be very revealing. The original intent of the scheme—to lower pollution levels in the city by lowering vehicular emissions—remains contested; the immediate effect of the scheme was instead a reduction in traffic and road congestion. During the two weeks of the scheme, road space miraculously appeared for the majority of Delhi citizens, who commute by bus, auto, bike, cycle or on foot. The trials reiterated the existence of a different Delhi, one that has been forming for the last three decades: the “Tenth Delhi,” most of which does not use cars, does not live in planned colonies or work in formal businesses. The more democratic allotment of space that occurred during odd-even has implications beyond transport and roads. It raises the question of what a democratic city—in which the majority of the population is given importance instead of the elite few—should look like.