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Friday, Sep 20, 2019

Mumbai should not lose one of its BEST legacies

The red buses, single and double-deckers, are a metaphor for this city and without them there was a sense of incompleteness

mumbai Updated: Jan 18, 2019 00:50 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
BEST buses on the road tell you the city is functioning normally.
BEST buses on the road tell you the city is functioning normally.(HT File )

For the nine days of the BEST (Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport ) strike, Mumbai had a surreal feel to it. The red buses, single and double-deckers, are a metaphor for this city and without them there was a sense of incompleteness.

Whether you use them or not, BEST buses on the road tell you the city is functioning normally. Much like an old grandfather’s clock in the house that one may hardly look at, but links the past to the present, providing continuity, assurance and character.

For those of my vintage or older, growing up in Bombay in the 1960s and 70s, BEST buses were the first form of commute. The suburban local train service was always more vital, but buses were more easily accessible and considered safer.

Bus stops would be near the home, queues were orderly, services remarkably punctual, fares affordable and you would get dropped off very close to your destination.

Moreover, the buses were a flaming red, a big attraction when you are small and, as you got older, bolstering the idea of Bombay. No other city in the country had such a colourful bus service or such an efficient one. The acronym BEST seemed apt.

Getting to commute alone by bus or train was also a big step towards adulthood. But even more than trains, bus journeys exposed the city --- its superb promenades and grisly innards – to impressionable minds.

For a fairly large chunk of my school life, the commute was from Napean Sea Road to Mazagaon, taking route 122 or 104, getting off at Gowalia Tank and changing either to the trolley service (later bus) on route 135 (via Grant Road) or 48 (via Tardeo and Nagpada). I can’t remember a day I was late.

My favourite route, however, was 123 from Tardeo to Sachivalaya via Marine Drive. After dusk, and especially if you sat on the upper deck, the spectacular view of the Queen’s Necklace was an experience to cherish.

Travelling by BEST had more than just utilitarian value. There was a romance to it too (heard of bus stop romances as captured in the film Chhoti Si Baat?), and occasionally even a dash of adventure.

Makarand Waingankar, historian of Mumbai cricket, has this fascinating anecdote from the early 1970s when he and some friends from Wilson College (where they were studying) took a bus to go to Eros theatre for and saw former India captain Mansur Ali Khan ‘Tiger’ Pataudi board the same.

Pataudi’s car hadn’t arrived to take him to Bombay Gymkhana for a rugby match so the blue-blooded former Nawab did the most practical thing, and got off near Churchgate.

He then decided to walk to the Gymkhana, trailed by fans, which swelled to more than 2,000 according to Waingankar, several of whom were taken to Azad Maidan police station for causing a traffic jam!

But life can be examined in sepia tone only to an extent. The problems afflicting BEST, which led to the recent strike, are real and current, demanding immediate and complete attention.

The crux issue is obviously finance. After the electric supply division was removed from BEST and private vehicles started inundating the roads, this was always going to be the challenge. Unfortunately, the remedies sought yet have been like using Band-Aid to prevent a haemorrhage.

Can BEST survive? A solution is beyond my expertise, but some measures could possibly help: Proper maintenance of vehicles to improve efficiency, spacing out frequency of stops on a long journey to reduce fuel consumption and improve time schedule, for instance.

Also, staff could be better trained to be in sync with the times: less grumpy, more smiling. Passengers would cough up a little more for a pleasanter, on-schedule journey. Just one rupee a day more from the 25 lakh odd daily commuters would lead to an annual revenue increase of approximately ₹90-100 crore!

The most important issue is linked to human resource management. More than 30,000 people are on BEST’s rolls. To keep them both productive and satisfied is not easy when feelings of deprivation and insecurity run high.

Getting them as active participants – along with professional managers as mooted – could make them feel more in control of their own lives and perhaps rejuvenate the organisation if not deliver super normal profits.

There are hardships involved. Hopefully a fresh start has been made to ensure that Mumbai does not lose one of its best legacies.

First Published: Jan 18, 2019 00:49 IST