Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Mr Kejriwal’s ‘Simple Simon’ solutions

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The chief minister in cosy jersey and muffler, who once promised free water and power at slashed rates, is introducing odd-even use of cars from January 1

Column in Business Standard, January 1, 2016

There’s an old nursery rhyme which sums up some of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s maverick ideas and schemes quite nicely. It goes like this:

Simple Simon met a pieman/ Going to the fair;

Says Simple Simon to the pieman/ Let me taste your ware.

Says the pieman to Simple Simon/ Show me first your penny;

Says Simple Simon to the pieman/Indeed I have not any.

Like Simple Simon, Delhi’s chief minister wants new pies without pennies. Last February the Aam Aadmi Party cocked a snook at the BJP and gave Mr Kejriwal a thundering majority on an anti-corruption platform; this New Year, Delhi’s particulate matter has taken over – an enveloping fug so awful that many of its inhabitants are choking on dangerously high levels of pollution. The city hasn’t had such a dreadful press in decades.

The chief minister in cosy jersey and muffler, who once promised free water and power at slashed rates, is introducing odd-even use of cars from January 1. It may be a good idea, and even help ward off bad publicity. The trouble is that Simple Simon Mr Kejriwal has neither the organisation and planning, nor the power and the “penny” to execute it.

Delhi has 8.5 million vehicles – with 1,400 cars added every day – and there are plenty of honest people trying to carpool, or swap cars with friends, including Chief Justice T S Thakur. But this is also the capital of privilege, of entrenched hierarchies and corrupt entitlements. The line-up of those seeking exemptions hasn’t stopped growing; in addition to 25 categories exempted, including auto-rickshaws and women drivers, lawyers also wanted to be let off. The high court shot down the request, and also asked why three-wheelers and women drivers were so special?

VIPs such as ministers, defence personnel and other superior classes will continue to flash their lal batti exemptions. If a recent wedding celebration at a Cabinet minister’s home was anything of an indicator, serpentine VIP cavalcades are unlikely to be shorn of vehicles bristling with security and hangers-on. Car number-plate makers at nukkad stalls are said to be doing a roaring business in flogging fake plates.

Yet Simple Simon Mr Kejriwal is unperturbed. Turning up at a local school this week he said the odd-even scheme would be “good fun” and urged children to exhibit Gandhigiri by persuading car owners to follow the two-week trial. “Maza ayega,” he added. In fact he was in favour of shutting down schools altogether for a fortnight till parents and courts protested.

Many of his ideas since he came to power more than 10 months ago have been consigned to the waste bin, such as abolition of lal batti culture; others, like demanding an audit of alleged extortion by power distribution companies (discoms), have been thrown out by the high court and the CAG who have questioned his locus. His promises of “x” number of hospitals and “y” number of medical colleges to improve health care services were buried this summer when the capital reported a staggering 10,683 cases of dengue – the worst epidemic since 1996.

Other than being one of the most polluted places on the planet, administering Delhi is intrinsically defective: there are simply too many centres of power. But Mr Kejriwal doesn’t believe in the politics of negotiation, consensus or compromise.

He is by nature obdurate and confrontationist. Having quarreled with party cohorts like Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan he’s been on a constant collision course with Lt Governor Najeeb Jung and Police Commissioner B S Bassi. His daily haranguing of political opponents and officials have resulted in the subordinate bureaucracy going on strike in the opening week of implementing the odd-even car formula. His acerbity shouldn’t be mistaken for simple-mindedness, however. When his principal secretary, Rajendra Kumar, was recently raided and 12 bottles of whisky found at his residence, he did not consider it a big deal.

Mr Kejriwal’s argument for lack of governance is that he is a chief minister without adequate powers. Surely he knew his remit from the moment he took office – that the city is a Union territory, with limits on his authority. Law and order is controlled by the Union home ministry; municipalities and land agencies are governed by the Ministry of Urban Development.

Traffic congestion is a major source of pollution but it is one of several. Two chief causes are managing waste disposal and industrial pollution. He has taken no serious steps to curtail either; strict action on either front would mean taking on two important vote banks: hordes of incompetent municipal workers and small-time manufacturers responsible for industrial pollution.

Simple Simon Mr Kejriwal’s solution of a two-week trial with odd-even cars is a shrewd fail-safe proposition: if it works, even marginally, he will take all the credit. If it fizzles out, he can always blame his enemies – he has made so many that even he can’t begin counting.


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