Mumbai’s BEST is damaged, resurrect and renew it

Through rain and shine, BEST’s network of nearly 3,500 buses ply across 450-480 routes

mumbai Updated: Nov 16, 2017 00:40 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,BEST,Mumbai bus
Through rain and shine, its network of nearly 3,500 buses ply across 450-480 routes.(Hindustan Times)

In its 91st year of existence, the BEST bus network, so eponymous with Mumbai, is poised at a delicate stage.

An unparalleled public transport service, it connects hundreds of areas across the city into a grid on which nearly four million commuters depend upon every day. Through rain and shine, its network of nearly 3,500 buses ply across 450-480 routes. It essays a life-saver role during crisis. Some routes have acquired a legendary status, buses have appeared in popular cinema and literature, poems and paeans have been written in their honour and many a love story blossomed in its aisles.

Yet, its losses have been piling up in the last few years despite increased fares, its fleet replacement and route mapping haven’t quite hit the mark, and its future does not look quite as bright as it should.

The Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) management, working on recommendations made by Mumbai’s municipal commissioner, initiated a host of revenue-enhancing and cost-cutting measures to stymie the Rs880 crore loss it could incur this year. An increase in fares for long distances, severe cuts in staff allowances, rationalisation of routes, and fleet review are among the measures approved earlier this week.

Accordingly, the fares for long distances have been raised by Rs1 to Rs12, monthly passes will cost significantly more (a 20 kilometre pass will now cost Rs 1,500 instead of the prevailing Rs 1,150), cost of daily passes has been raised by 20% to 30%, and student fare has also been increased. Route rationalisation means some of the 380 routes which turn in losses may be cancelled or pared down. Commuters will pay the price for mismanagement and lack of foresight of those who were tasked to run the BEST undertaking.

Where did successive managers and minders lose their way? A part of this has to do with the overall transport policy for Mumbai. Over the last decade and a half, the infrastructure and conditions for private transport received maximum attention and resources. The investment of policy-making and finances on flyovers and sea-link, coupled with affordable vehicle loans, meant that Mumbaiites were encouraged to buy and use two-wheelers and private cars over public transport.

The downslide in BEST service contributed too. From its heydays when commuters would set their wristwatches to the arrival of their bus routes at bus stops, buses began to be delayed or bunched up. Commuters wasted time waiting for buses. Simultaneously, the share-a-rickshaw or share-a-taxi systems to and from suburban railway stations hit the feeder routes of BEST buses. Also, routes were sometimes started to humour politicians on the BEST committee in the municipal corporation.

The ever-increasing congestion on Mumbai roads meant that commuters spent hours in buses, breathing fumes and toxic dust. Those who could afford alternatives moved away from patronising BEST. Dedicated bus lanes would have addressed this problem but the management dragged its feet for too long. Gradually, a dependable system for all commuters increasingly turned into a lifeline for the poorer segments of society, they who were not priority for policy-makers.

What the BEST lacked the most was a far-reaching, forward-looking, comprehensive vision in the 1990s when the character of the city – its economy, housing, business districts, new residential areas – began to transform. The growth and expansion of the bus network did not quite match the nature or pace of the transformation of Mumbai. There was avoidable ad-hocism in the way the BEST undertaking saw its role in the changing city.

But that’s now so much water under the bridge. The steps taken this week may give the BEST some breathing space but it will need a comprehensive long-term strategy for the future. The management could start by imagining the BEST in its centenary year, 2026. Even today, the sight of the large red buses trundling across Mumbai’s streets brings security and sparkle to millions. Besides, the BEST story is a microcosm narrative of Mumbai’s history itself.

First Published: Nov 16, 2017 00:40 IST