Monday, December 7, 2015

Walking Buddhas: Making Delhi Roads Car Free

(Delhi streets on a day)

Today I want to talk to you about the Delhi Government’s decision to control the use of private vehicles on Delhi roads in order to reduce the alarming atmospheric pollution due to carbon emission by the excessive use of vehicles, from 1st January 2016 onwards. Delhi has almost topped the world cities in pollution despite its green cover and it has become a concern of the government that seeks human security than national security and over emphasis on development. I do not go into the data of the pollutions levels in Delhi but I am concerned about the health of all, including my children who live in the city of Delhi. Like any other human beings who are over protective about their progenies, I too am a human being who thinks more about the safety, security and health of my own children. Call me selfish. From this selfishness, perhaps we all could start an ecological revolution in our city. The AAP government that has a brutal majority in the Delhi assembly has decided to allow the private vehicles with odd and even numbers on their registration plates on alternative days to ply on the road. I welcome this decision not only as an AAP sympathizer but also as a citizen who is concerned.

 (Determined to Clean up: Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi Chief Minister)

The government has already declared that if the move fails in gathering public support or it shows systemic failure in implementation, within fifteen days the move will be withdrawn. Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal is confident about its success as this model had been successfully employed in Paris and Beijing during the times of environmental crisis. My idea of writing this article is however slightly different than the actual withdrawal of vehicles from the Delhi roads by force. The government move has already been politicized by the opposition led by the BJP and also by the cynics in the society who say that the rich and powerful will flout the directive by opting for more cars with odd and even numbers so that they could use cars daily. Published data show if effectively implemented on day around two millions of cars will be kept off the roads in the city; that automatically translates into the reduction of atmospheric pollution due to carbon emission by half. But this needs the sheer will of the people than the muscle of a government that enjoys clear majority. Cynics also point out that (as the government rightly knows the shortcomings of the city’s public transport systems) there are no effective supplementary and complementary commutation plans in place in Delhi.

There should be a beginning somewhere for the benefit of the people. It is not the concern of this city alone. It is the concern of the world. The revolution should start at home. When we say that by implementing such a curbing directive by the government people of the city are forced into inconvenience of different kinds. But we have to understand that people in general would be the beneficiaries of this move. The losers will be the corporates that sell more and more cars and more and more fuel and go to the banks all the way singing happy tunes. We need to ask where exactly the inconvenience is. With the metro covering more than two hundred kilometers of the city, only a few places are left without metro connectivity. The problem is the last mile connectivity. Despite the tall claims of the AAP government, the city of Delhi still reeks in small and large scale corruptions, of which ironically the auto rickshaw drivers are a part who were an integral part of the AAP’s anti-corruption drive. One finds hardly any auto driver with a clear conscience in this city; they all pitch their argument that there is a price hike, the higher ups are eating money and they also need to live in the city by literally looting the hapless passengers.

 (Try this: Delhi Metro)

This is a very defective argument. My experience tells me that many private transportation service providers like Ola, Uber, Meru, Cool Cabs and so on, charge exactly what the meter says. The drivers are well behaved (except the odd unfortunate incidents happened with a Uber passenger) and never makes the passengers uncomfortable with their arrogance. If that system is possible in this city, why can’t much effective meter system be implemented strictly for the autos and the drivers be disciplined even with punitive measures if need be. It is not that there are no meters in the autos. The fact is none wants to go by the meter. Unfortunately, the law enforcers are equally corrupted and most of them let corruption happen at the inconvenience of the passengers, right under their nose. One just needs to look at the metro station surroundings where even in the presence of the cops the passengers are heckled and harassed by the auto people. Nothing is unconnected or remains disconnected; everything is organically connected. If corruption could be well connected, right from the lower rungs to the upper rungs and vice versa, then why goodness is not connected in that way?

I strongly believe that goodness is connected organically and a streak of goodness runs through every human being. Even the most corrupted person in the world should be having a little bit of human goodness left somewhere in his or her mind. What we need is the tapping of that sap and letting it run through the whole system. I remember people coming out in the Delhi streets in large numbers for protesting against the brutal rape of Nirbhaya in December 2012. This revolution of the middle class percolated all over the Indian streets. I believe that the drive against environmental pollution could also become a national move provided if all of us think that our children are Nirbhayas at the hands of the ‘polluters’. And who are these polluters? All of us have this tendency to point finger at the other vehicles while stuck in a traffic jam. We always say that the others create traffic jam while sitting in a stuck up car in the middle of the road. We exempt ourselves from the sin of brining a car out. It is said, traffic jam is nothing but us in our cars. There is no external phenomenon like a traffic jam. It is created by us. Each person who takes out a vehicle from the garage and brings it on to the roads is nothing but the cause of a jam or pollution.

(A Long way to go: Delhi buses)

Using of a car has a lot to do with social snobbery than convenience. The desire making machines day in and day out tell us that a big car with state of the art facilities help one to become something more than what he or she is. It is an illusion but most of us fail to understand this illusion. We believe that the more we show off our opulence and wealth the more we are respected. A man or woman who heads an office of any kind believes that coming by a car (a big car) brings him/her more respect. While we model the west for anything and everything, we forget to understand the fact that only in advertisements the westerners are shown in cars. The CEOs and Professors and many such important people peddle down to their officer, take public transport or even walk or jog to their offices. Educated new generation in cities like Delhi, I have seen, has become more aware of the coolness of being ecologically friendly. I have seen young professionals peddling down to their offices. But that is a miniscule percentage in the city’s population. But if everyone walks the last mile or use the cycles for the last mile then metros and public transportation are enough for a city like Delhi. If people decide to walk the last mile and boycott the use of autos, or they decide to use e-rickshaws and cycle rickshaws, I am sure the corruption level along with the pollution level would come down.

(Walking Buddha)

The decision of the government definitely would bring a lot of inconvenience to the people in the beginning till they get adjusted to it. The best example of adopting and then getting adapted to a system is the behavioral patterns of the metro commuters. Delhi being a city of spitters (it is almost like a national sport for the Delhiites to spit anywhere they feel like including the corridors of the state assembly) never thought that they could resist the temptation to spit inside metros. But constant public announcements, punitive measures and the general sophistication given by the metro locations made people a different kind at least when they ride on metros. If that is possible people could get adjusted to the new situation of using public transport. But there should certain exemptions. People with health problems, pregnancy, age related problems and emergency related issues should be exempted from the odd-even number restrictions. Also there should be some relaxations to the senior citizens. And above all, the government should take measures to build cycle tracks and pedestrian tracks. A strong will of the people and of the government could change the complexion of Delhi forever. But the revolution should start at home. For this there should be a sea change in the idea of self-perception and social perception.

(Streets belong to People)

Self- perception of a citizen is largely based on his idea of self-worth. The moment he or she attaches all her worth to the materials that she/he consumes or is seen with then there is no limit to consumption. The moment one detaches self-worth from the ‘things’ that one is seen with then everything falls in place. I never say that one should not use cars. I never say that one should not consume desirous objects. Everything permitted provided those things do not determine the self-worth of a person. Imagine the catastrophic conditions in which people are thrown due to wars, conflicts, natural calamities and so on. Both the film stars and the destitute come under the same roof of the rehabilitation centers. Where exactly does a flood or fire different one’s self worth? Nothing matters then. One’s self worth is not definitely defined by the possessions or the cars one uses. When the influential ones change the attitude the rest will find it easier to follow. Social snobbery attached to things should end and with that the use of the cars also will go from the cultural underpinnings in the people’s minds.  One should relearn the art of walking.

Art of walking is the most exciting and enriching form of art in the world. As a practitioner of this art I could say that it is the simplest form of art. Though it is simple, it is conceptual and intellectual at the same time. The biggest benefit that one person would get from walking in these days is that he/she would get a chance to see the people and things around. While you are driving you do not really see things as your focus is either on the road or your mind is wandering in your thoughts accompanied by the music coming out of the stereo. When you are in a public transport you hardly look out; these days most of the people prefer to stare at their mobile phone screens than watching and observing things around. In fact the market and the governments want the people to be zombies like this so that they become passive receptacles of anything given to them. The ability to observe, analyze, question, probe into and so on become benumbed as one engages completely with the mobile phone screen. Walking is a remedy to this illness and the symptom of an impending mental break down. Walking also helps people to be one with the surrounding and people. A society develops or rather the developments happen in a society when people become social and affectionate not only to the other people but also to their surroundings. Sunday picnics or Sunday gardening or sticking to organic diets etc would not help to develop these community traits; walking would. When you walk you get enough time to be with yourself also with others.

(Cycling to workplace is the coolest thing)

Walking is the first step to enlightenment. I do not say I am an enlightened being. But I could be at any time as I walk a lot. I say this because, when the Prince Sidhartha left the benumbing luxuries in the palace for knowing the world more, he witnessed disease, old age and death. It was the beginning of his Buddhahood. He was in a chariot driven by Chanda. He was not walking. But that journey made him walk rest of his life. He became Buddha. We all are possible and potential Buddhas. There is a Buddha in us but we need to realize him by walking. When we walk we understand the pain of others. When we walk we understand the pollution level in the air that we are breathing. When we understand that, we will not dare to pollute it further. Walking should be a very cultured life style as in the west. Or cycling is a very cool life style in most of the developed societies. To make walking a cultural way of life, we should leave all the social snobberies behind. Joseph Beuys was a great walker. Richard Lang made his works by walking. Christo was a walker. Francism Aly is a walker. Vito Acconci was a walker. And why forget Gandhiji who was the greatest of walkers. They all brought around changes in the world. One should be proud of standing on one’s own feet, literally. Bob Marley sang, ‘my feet is my only carriage so I have to push on through’(No Woman No Cry). That is the history of human race. They walked and by walking paths became clear. That’s why they say street belongs to people who are walking. But at some stage of our modernist evolution, paths were taken over by vehicles. This is a Frankenstein that we ourselves given birth to. Now it is the time to contain him. We can do it by being proud walkers. When we walk or peddle around, our kids will grow up in that culture. Today our kids are brought up in the culture of arrogance. A study conducted by the Outlook magazine long back said that the desire for larger cars comes not from the desire to have more comfort but it is to assert the spaces that one could occupy in the society. The more space you consume in the road the more your ego is satisfied. It shows not only social occupancy but also social mobility. We need to do away with that mindset boosted by the market economy by fanning illusionary desires.

We should all covert ourselves into the art of walking. We should be more sophisticated to accept that the world is made for all and we do not have any special space or place in the larger scheme of the universe. When we increase the carbon emission levels we are not only denying our kids’ right to have clean air but also denying the same to all the other organic beings that use oxygen for their survival. This is the Buddhahood that I am suggesting. Once this sense of being is awakened, then everything will be alright. None will feel the need for bigger cars or the daily use of them. One could walk, one could peddle around or one could just be at home and manage the works from home. Let’s walk and be Buddhas of the urban spaces.

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