Better buses, BEST solution: How to revive Mumbai’s bus network
Sturdy, bright-red buses making their way through crowded roads used to be a typical Mumbai sight. But decades of neglect and lack of funds have turned what could have been a world-class public transport mode into a crumbling mess.
One of India’s oldest bus transport systems is struggling to stay afloat and no one’s noticing. So, what makes reviving the BEST buses so important in a city where few use them? The answer is simple: better buses could encourage more people to leave their cars at home and clear the roads of traffic to a great extent.
Why Mumbai needs BEST?
Even as traffic congestion grows, hundreds of crores are being spent on building super-ways and flyovers that will only add to this mess.In Mumbai, the fall in BEST’s ridership coincided with a massive rise in bike sales. If the buses improved, more people using bikes and app-based cabs would use them, said experts. “Travelling on BEST buses would reduce the congestion on roads and reduce traffic. The government should encourage people with private vehicles to take the bus during peak hours,” said transport expert Ashok Datar.
Simply put, an efficient, comfortable bus network is the least expensive way to unclog the city’s crowded roads. But for this, BEST needs funds.
Debts and more debts
BEST has not paid more than 40,000 of its employees salary on time since April this year. The transport body is facing losses of more than Rs2,100 crore. It has no funds to maintain its buses or expand services.
And, this crisis has not happened overnight. Sources in BEST said the only way out is a financial bailout package by the BMC or the state government. The BEST management has asked the BMC (its parent body) for Rs2,000 crore. But the BMC, after losing a steady source of income in the Octroi, is reluctant to pay. Instead, it has asked BEST to increase fares and find other ways to cut down losses.
BEST data shows the transport wing has been facing losses for several decades. The century-old body started facing financial losses after the Centre enacted the Electricity Act 2003 that restrained BEST from using the profit of its electricity wing to subsidise losses of its transport wing. So, the buses were solely dependent on revenue from fares.
“The BEST committee lost authority of deciding the power tariff, which reduced its profit from the electricity business. That was the beginning of BEST’s downfall,” said Suhas Nalawade, a former BEST official and union leader.
It was the beginning of a slow, silent end. And, the increasing purchasing power of the people in the nineties did not help. More people could afford bikes and cars. In less than 15 years, the roads got crowded, buses moved slower and became less punctual and commuters lost patience. The Metro and monorail projects and the space they took up did not help, said Sunil Ganacharya, a senior BEST committee member.
According to sources, BEST’s decision of buying 288 AC buses proved costly. It bought the purple buses to attract a new breed of passengers, but the buses broke down frequently and were poorly maintained. Passengers so no point in paying the high fare.The AC buses caused an annual loss of more than Rs80 crore and finally discontinued in April.
Once known for being sturdy and reliable, the fund crunch saw the condition of buses deteriorate after 2008. LED indicators weren’t working, seats were broken, seat covers were torn, and passenger patronage fell. Around 43 lakh commuters used to travel on buses in 2008-09 a day. This fell to 30 lakh in 2015-16. To save money, BEST also shut down popular routes and introduced new routes under political pressure. “External factors include the BEST’s failure to study roads and adapt to a rapidly changing city. Internal factors such as bad maintenance and poor governance only made it worse,” Datar said. Arbitrary, irregular fare revisions also went against BEST.
“Instead of introducing innovative ideas, the BEST committee focused on their growth. Only this year did they ask the BMC to help,” said AV Shenoy.