By Parth MN Jan. 16, 2019
Mumbai’s ubiquitous red buses are struggling to keep up with the city’s pace. And we will only be poorer without them. Smart cities boast of smart public transport and the devolution of the BEST is a step backward.
Growing up in Mahim meant the BEST bus depot was a landmark, as well-known as the causeway, and the famous St Michael’s Church opposite which it stands. Located in the heart of central Mumbai, the depot was a touchpoint for several residents. Until I owned a motorbike, my travels in the city often ended with a short walk back home from the depot.
I still live in the same place, but the depot is long gone. A sprawling high-rise residential complex replaced it more than two years back.
The BEST strike, which ended on Wednesday after nine days (the longest in history), needs to be seen in this context. Last week the BEST Sanyukta Kamgar Kruti Samiti, a joint action committee of labour unions, had gone on strike, asking for a raise in junior grade salary to ₹14,000 per month, and a hike for all employees. But this demand, the management says, would add a burden of ₹900 crore on the BEST, which is already cash-strapped. The stalemate ended today after the Bombay High Court directed BEST to enforce a 10-step increment plan and resolve the matter in three months.
This is not going to be an easy task. The BEST employs more than 32,000 people, and, according to reports, incurs a cumulative loss of ₹1,800 crore, besides enduring a debt of ₹2,500 crore. BEST has also not paid gratuity to retired employees since 2016, and in December 2018, paid its workforce ₹1.5 crore of salary in coins.
As the workers probably still count their salaries, activists and analysts of the strike claim there is more to this than meets the eye. The bus depot at Kurla is gone, as has the one at Versova. As of now, Shiv Sena controls both the BEST and the BMC. Unions have demanded the merging of the two, but if BEST comes under the BMC, the commercial use of the land would be subjected to several legal restrictions.
“The idea is to show the BEST as a redundant service that’s beyond revival.”
Harsher critics claim that this is part of a broader conspiracy – to consistently neglect the BEST and thus create a pretext to privatise the service, so that more bus depots could be sold to builders for commercial exploitation. Yet another example of the classic builder-corporate-politician nexus.
SK Rege, the Mumbai secretary of the CPIM, told me that the fact that buses are being taken off the road, and their frequency is reduced, is all part of this bigger plan. “Earlier, there was a proposal to give private transport companies the routes that are usually profitable, but that was reversed after workers revolted,” he said. “The idea is to show the BEST as a redundant service that’s beyond revival. That the only way out is to privatise it. Fewer buses mean more land for the builder lobby.”
So far, this plan appears to be working. In March 2018, estimates showed an all-time low in bus ridership. Once hailed as the lifeline of Mumbai, it carried 43.7 lakh riders in 2009, which has now dwindled to 25.9 lakh. Notwithstanding the mushrooming population of the city, there has been a steep 40 per cent fall.
Hindustan Times/Contributor/ Getty Images
This makes sense, considering most passengers would rather share rickshaws from the train station to their homes than wait for buses that may or may not turn up on time. In May 2018, Mumbai Mirror reported that the “average speed of BEST buses has dropped by roughly 25 per cent in the past decade”. In February 2018, it noted, “BEST buses covered only 167 km a day against their target of 200km” while the “bus driver logged 47 km a day compared to 60 in 2001”. Meanwhile, according to the Motor Vehicles Department, the number of private cars tripled to over 30 lakh between 2001 and 2017.
Experts point out that this trend is counterproductive as the city grapples with traffic congestion and pollution. Buses improve the road space index of the city. Private vehicles, auto rickshaws and taxis do the opposite.
“But we look at depots as wasted space, which can be used for commercial interests.”
Vidyadhar Date, author of “Traffic in the Era of Climate Change: Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority” agrees, pointing out that any city with smooth and disciplined traffic, promotes public transport. “Mumbai is operating the other way round,” he said. “International cities focus on public transport. Even cities like Chennai are adding newer bus depots. But we look at depots as wasted space, which can be used for commercial interests.”
Last month, during a trip to Surat, a municipal commissioner I spoke to over a cup of tea, told me that in 2016, only 25,000 people used the bus in the city, as opposed to 3 lakh passengers today. This is only going to expand as part of the smart city mission. The city has a dedicated lane for buses, and even though it is not exactly a profit-making initiative, he said, it is essential for a climate resilient city.
Back in Mumbai, if the BEST, or even a part of it, were handed over to a private transport operator, it would immediately increase the fare. Most of the 25-30 lakh riders on the bus belong to the working class, who cannot afford a first-class train or metro ticket. Mumbaikars will remember that not too long ago, when Adani had taken over the electricity supply, bills had shot up by as much as 50 per cent, sparking outrage.
For the generation that lived through the 1980s, the recent BEST development will be all too familiar. Mumbai was once known for the mills across the city, which started to incur losses since 1980s. The worker who worked at the mills was the Marathi manoos Shiv Sena claimed to represent. Datta Iswalkar, veteran leader who led the movement of mill workers in Mumbai, said Bal Thackeray called for a strike of mill workers over the demand of bonus during Diwali, and then didn’t follow through. “At that time, Bal Thackeray took an indifferent stand, while the workers continued their strike under a different leadership,” he said. “Eventually, when the mills shut down, it drove around a lakh workers toward unemployment. With BEST, the history could repeat itself.”
And if this happens, Mumbai will only be poorer for it.
Parth MN is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He predominantly covers agriculture, along with politics and current affairs. He is the recipient of Ramnath Goenka Award and has been awarded the Lorenzo Natali Media Prize by the European Commission.