For Valerin Saldanha, 61, Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) buses are the cheapest, safest and best mode of travel.
But there are not many who would agree with Saldanha? Most would beg to differ and for obvious reasons. A commuter would inevitably think twice before hopping on to a BEST bus, the second lifeline of Mumbai, as the number of breakdowns and incidences of BEST buses catching fire have risen considerably over the past few years.
With little or no subsidies from the state government, the financial health of the BEST is not good. The buses are not well maintained, there’s perpetual staff crunch, ill-trained drivers, fewer depots, all of which explain the reason for frequent breakdowns and rising number of mishaps.
As per the BEST committee report tabled in January 2011, 23,612 BEST buses suffered breakdowns from June to November in 2010. Staff crunch, lack of infrastructure for 1,000 buses acquired under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) were listed as causes for such incidences.
Till March this year, two BEST buses have caught fire. In January, a 45-year-old man suffered 20% burns after a BEST bus running on compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel caught fire in Andheri. On March 3, a BEST Kinglong bus caught fire near IIT Powai. This is the sixth instance of Kinglong buses catching fire in the past two years.
“BEST has suffered its share of problems. We must keep in mind that BEST lacks money and infrastructure to maintain buses. We are managing somehow, but if we need to improve, we would need help from the government,” said a BEST official.
While BEST’s income from transport wing has remained unchanged, spend rose considerably over a period of one year. It charges fares at a subsidised rate (only Rs4 for a two-km ride). Though the BEST is a public undertaking, it buys diesel and CNG for its buses at market price. Apart from this, the BEST also pays passenger tax worth Rs24.50 crore annually and also nutrition charges at10 paisa per ticket to the local government.
It had to pay more than Rs17 crore as Octroi to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for its newly added buses, even though the BEST is an undertaking of the civic body. The BEST will be able to save Rs250 crore if taxes are removed.
“We have written to the government and the BMC requesting them for subsidies but we haven’t received any reply or assurance from them,” said Sanjay Potnis, BEST committee chairman.
Responding to this charge, Rahul Shewale, BMC standing committee chairman, said that the civic body is working on this proposal, but it will take some time. Officials said if BEST saves money, it would be spent on building infrastructure. On an optimistic note, transport analyst Arun Mokashi calls BEST as still the best transport service. “The government needs to lend a helping hand to BEST to make it the best.”