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Planned effort to 'wind down' Mumbai's BEST bus service step by step: Report

Counterview Desk
The Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST), a civic transport and electricity provider public body based in Mumbai, was originally set up in 1873 as a tramway company called Bombay Tramway Company Limited. The company set up a captive thermal power station at Wadi Bunder in November 1905 to generate electricity for its trams and supply electricity to the city, and re-branded itself to Bombay Electric Supply & Tramways (BEST) Company.
In 1926, BEST began operating motor buses and in 1947, became an undertaking of the Municipal Corporation, and re-branded itself to "Bombay Electric Supply & Transport (BEST). In 1995, with Bombay being renamed Mumbai, the organisation was renamed to ‘Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport (BEST)’ and operates as an autonomous body under the Municipal Corporation.
The quintessential BEST buses have been an integral part of Mumbai throughout history, says a just-released report “Solution for the BEST”. Published by The DraftCraft International’s flagship initiative, the Public Space Project, and authored by Gajanan Khergamker, the report insists, public transportation in Mumbai is “slowly yet surely being phased out in favour of a range of private, lofty options that threaten to throttle the city’s limited resources sooner than later.”

Excerpts:

Sounding a well-meant alarm on the series of 'developments' regarding BEST bus services, is Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST (AMAB), a forum of citizens for public transport. "Contrary to the public stance of BEST, it appears that there is a planned effort to wind down BEST bus services step by step, so that, in place of the outstanding public transport service it once used to be, we will be left with just the shell of BEST," says AMAB convenor Vidyadhar Date.
Interestingly, the BEST general manager’s proposed Budget for 2019-20 claims that BEST will raise the total fleet by 713 buses by the end of 2019-20, by relying on 'private contractors'. However, the BMC has not provided a single rupee of grant to BEST in 2018-19 (as has been the case the previous three years) and the GM has not budgeted for a single rupee of BMC grant in 2019-20. As AMAB points out, BEST has suspended the issuing of bus passes, on the plea that it is unable to issue smart cards due to the lack of e-ticketing machines.
"The management and the BEST Committee are responsible for the present situation, in which an existing vendor of e-ticketing machines has been removed without a replacement. This has effectively raised the cost of travel for large numbers of low-income regular commuters who rely on passes and concurrently, more and more commuters are leaving BEST," adds Date.
Interestingly, over the last year, BEST has failed to collect Rs 320 crore from builders who were given redevelopment rights for several depots despite the corporation complaining of operational losses.
"BEST has already discontinued one-fifth of its routes. It has also reduced its fleet by over 900 buses. It has repeatedly raised its fares, far more steeply than the general level of the Consumer Price Index, to the point at which share-taxi and share-auto services become competitive, and has thus lost one-third of its passengers in the space of a few years," maintains AMAB in an official statement.
"All of BEST’s issues, over the recent years have been created by government policy that has single-mindedly encouraged the private automobile sector creating unbearable congestion on roads, lack of investment in upgrading and improving BEST fleet and operations, and repeated fare hikes that have led to a drop in ridership," maintains Date.
"The real crisis of BEST is the decline of public bus ridership and the ruinous expansion of private transport, which has led to the growth of traffic congestion, pollution and deterioration of public welfare (as those who can least afford it are made to pay more for an essential service, or give it up). Ridership of BEST buses has fallen by a third, from 42 lakh to 28 lakh or even less, in the space of a few years. If we continue on the present path, Mumbai’s public bus system, once the pride of the city, will soon be irrelevant," he adds.
AMAB has listed three key demands from the BMC and the BEST management to get BEST on track. These include firstly subsidising and operating BEST as part of the BMC Budget. The BMC being the richest municipality in the country, with an accumulated Rs 69,000 crore of fixed deposits, refuses to fund an essential service of the city.

BEST users not customers

In Mumbai, the public transport service hasn’t been an enterprise but an essential service and must be treated in a manner such. That said, the state government or the civic authorities that head the cash-rich Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, contrary to popular view, feel otherwise and couldn’t care less either.
Instead of being operated by a public entity in the interest of the public and run on public money, the BEST bus service is being pitted against private entities. The corporation, while looking to maximise profits even with the BEST bus service, fails to recognise that the users of these services are citizens, not consumers.
“You simply cannot be looking to make a profit with the BEST buses. It is a service for the poorest of poor who cannot afford to own a car or use a private transport service such as Ola or Uber,” says octogenarian and retired government employee Mrs Sundari C, who yet avails a bus whenever she has to “travel from Colaba to Babulnath Temple every Monday to offer obeisance to Lord Shiva.”
And Sundari, finds most of her friends -- from all age groups -- catching up with all the gossip ranging from politics to the weather - all in the BEST bus No 123 as it meanders along the Queen’s Necklace before reaching Chowpaty and, finally, the Temple.
“Throughout my life, I’ve never seen a BEST bus driver lose his cool despite all the road rage and chaos triggered by private vehicles and two-wheelers that break every traffic rule in the book and beyond,” she says. “And, why would I stop using a service that is so affordable and so civil to me unlike private services offered by Kali Peelis and Ubers whose drivers are outright uncouth,” adds Sundari.
“It is an ordeal trying to walk on the roads today in Mumbai,” says Sundari who suffered a nasty fall last year due to a motorcyclist hitting her while overtaking a parked taxi after a fiery argument with its driver. “Nobody has the time or patience in this city, any longer,” she says.
“Each time, I have to walk to a nearby public garden, a few lanes away from my home, I dread stepping out on the road. It’s just a ma+er of time before someone hits me again,” maintains Sundari who has now begun carrying a bright-red umbrella with her each time she steps out to ensure that, while on the road, “she doesn’t fall on someone’s blind spot.”
Today, the BEST bus service’s fleet transverse the metropolis and operate in Thane and Navi Mumbai districts too. The second-largest mode of transport in Mumbai after local trains transports about 28 lakh persons every day, down from the 41.9 lakh persons that would commute by BEST buses in 1997-98.
Putting forward its people’s plan for BEST, an Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST movement, has included demands for subsidised public transport, accessibility and affordability, dis-incentivising private transport, and accountability and consultation in the decision-making process.
Today, a total of 785 BEST buses are detained in depots every day owing to a staff shortage. Worse still, 112 routes have been suspended and 95 trips cancelled since August 2017, increasing the gap between buses on a route. Also, 230 air-conditioned buses have been ‘retired” since April 2017.
Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, India’s richest municipal body, does not subsidise BEST. It instead furthers loans to BEST, charging it interest thereby crippling it even further. The issues for BEST workers range from reduced wages, lack of bonuses and increasing contractual employment for workers, whose numbers are dwindling. 

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