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Thursday, Aug 22, 2019

You can stop BEST from bleeding to death, Mr Fadnavis

Nearly 29-30 lakh commuters who depend on BEST, the city’s second-most popular transport network after the suburban railways, were hard hit by the strike.

mumbai Updated: Jan 10, 2019 01:20 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Nearly 3,400 buses did not ply on 430 routes.
Nearly 3,400 buses did not ply on 430 routes.(HT Photo)

For two days this week, Tuesday and Wednesday, the familiar and comforting red buses of Mumbai were off the roads thanks to a general strike called by its unions.

Nearly 3,400 buses did not ply on 430 routes; nearly 29-30 lakh commuters who depend on this, the city’s second-most popular transport network after the suburban railways, were obviously hard hit.

The usual whining happened: The Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport employees should not be allowed to strike work, unions hold the city to ransom, and so on. The BEST management threatened nearly 40,000 striking work with arrest, saying the strike is not legal. This is only part of the story. But the strike need not have crippled Mumbai. The BEST management, indeed the state government, could have used their statutory power to make the necessary alternative arrangements. Mumbai’s district collectors were not even aware of the options they could exercise, as a report in this paper showed. BEST unions legitimately represent employees, strikes are part of any union’s arsenal. Besides, more than 90% of employees polled by one of the unions opted to strike. But it did not have to mean a dead-end for commuters. The other part is complex and runs deep. It has to do with the slow and sustained bleeding of Mumbai’s iconic mass transport system. The genesis lies, at least partly, in the legacy of the BEST. It started as Bombay Tramway Company Limited in 1873, eight years after trams were first proposed as public transport. In 1905, the Bombay Electric Supply & Tramway Company Limited (BEST) was formed and acquired the monopoly for electricity supply and electric tram service. Along the way, it was taken over by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

The first bus service, in July 1926, ran between Afghan Church and Crawford Market. Eventually, as tram services ceased, the “tramway” gave way to “transport” in its nomenclature. Through most of its existence, BEST earned off the electricity vertical to cross-subsidise the transport. This changed in a fundamental way more than a decade ago when BEST could no longer cross-subsidise its transport. But – this is important – no workable alternative plan was immediately put in place. It was pretty much left to its own devices. Its budget has been separate from that of the BMC, the largest and richest civic body in Asia. Unions want a merging of the budgets. Over the years, Mumbai’s hubs for commerce and leisure expanded and altered, but route scheduling was not dynamic enough. Mumbai’s mix of public and private transport preferences changed; the BEST did little to account for it. A host of issues plague it now: bus ridership dropped from 44 lakh a day in 2010 to about 29 lakh, the efficiency/frequency of buses declined by 25% over the last decade thanks to road congestion, fares were hiked so steeply that commuters dropped off its charts and routes had to be pruned, losses have mounted.

It is not that solutions don’t exist or can’t be applied. Transport analysts and citizens have offered a range of suggestions to resuscitate the transport system. However, the BEST and BMC’s attitude has been one of shrug-and-wait. Do they want BEST to collapse? BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta finally put a reforms plan on the table; unions say it is a drift towards privatisation. This, besides their wages and bonus, is what the unions are up in arms about. Deal with the unions the way law allows you to, Mr Mehta and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, but do not have us believe that the woes of BEST are insurmountable. Or that BEST has to be independently profitable. Public/mass transport is not a profitable enterprise the world over; purpose rather than profit drives its existence. The solutions and suggestions offered by experts call for political will, managing BEST demands that you, as the government, commit to its existence and health. The will and the commitment are missing. You are, after all, managing the execution of large, challenging projects such as the coastal road and Metro network. Managing BEST well should be child’s play; do not allow it to slowly bleed to its demise.

First Published: Jan 10, 2019 01:19 IST

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