By Gitanjali Sharma
August 7, 2018 was the 71st anniversary of the BEST services in Mumbai. To mark the occasion, on August 6, 2018, the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance and Amchi Mumbai, Amchi BEST, organised a panel discussion at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The panel discussion, titled ‘Better than BEST? The Future of Public Transport in Mumbai’ addressed the systematic attempts by the BMC and BEST management to undermine the services of the BEST. The panel featured academics, transport experts, citizen activists, union leaders who debated and discussed what is ailing the BEST, and what are some of the strategies to convince the BEST management and the BMC that BEST needs to be subsidized, that the unregulated growth of private vehicles needs to be discouraged, and that BEST needs to regain its position as an urban affordable, sustainable and universally accessible mode of public transport. The panel speakers included feminist activist Sandhya Gokhale; Amita Bhide, Dean, School of Habitat Studies, TISS Mumbai; Jagnarayan M. Gupta, Union Leader and Head of BEST Kamgar Sangathana, and Ashok Datar, Economist and Transport Analyst, Chairperson of Mumbai Environmental Social Network. The session was moderated by Dr. Ratoola Kundu, Assistant Professor, Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, TISS Mumbai
For the last seven decades, the BEST buses have been a lifeline of Mumbai. However, in recent years, bad planning, poor management, lack of investment and woeful maintenance of the bus fleet has led to reduction in the number of buses. As mentioned by Jagnarayan M Gupta in his presentation, 112 routes that were considered not profitable have been suspended and close to 95 trips have been cancelled on the pretext of lack of ridership by the Municipal Corporation of the city. The BEST problems are a result of (a) government policy that is single minded in the encouragement of private automobiles creating unbearable congestion on roads, (b) lack of investment in upgrading and improving BEST fleet and operations, and (c) repeated fare hikes since April 2012 that have led to a drop in ridership. 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 (People Plan, 2018). Ridership of BEST buses has fallen by a third, from 42 lakh to 28 lakh or even less, in a span of a few years. There have also been a series of protests over the issues of chronic delays of the salary of the BEST employees, the scrapping of bus routes and buses that aren’t put to use.
In order to contain the problems, the BMC and the Municipal Corporation wants to further reduce bus routes, increase ticket prices and privatise of bus operations. However, before deciding whether privatisation is the right way to go, we need to first understand how ‘public’ are our public transport modes”.’ During the panel discussion Dr. Amita Bhide argued that in order for BEST to be seen or function as a public service and not a public enterprise, it needs to be operated by a public entity. She said, “In order to serve the public of the region it needs to be funded by public money. A public service is amenable to public scrutiny, it needs to be transparent in its operations and finances. Moreover, a public service is not concerned about bottom lines or profit but its focus remains on making the city more accessible to all citizens. The BEST must be viewed as an integrated system that is linked to other modes of public transport, and not as a service that functions in isolation. Most importantly, the public who are the users of the service, should be involved in the decision making with regard to the future of BEST. The absence of this understanding is evident throughout the cities in India leading to fragmentation of public transportation. We need to stop viewing the riders as customers and alienating them from the decision making process.”
Sandhya Gokhale, a feminist activist, added that while a public service must focus on factors like cost, time, reliability, service frequency, physical comfort, security, etc, safety, especially women should be their primary concern. “Women feel safer in public transportation, and the working women of Mumbai rely more on BEST buses than on trains. This should be incentive to push harder to save the BEST,” she said.
Union leader Jagnarayan M. Gupta argued for the case of the BEST workers, who in recent years haven’t received increments and in some cases their wages have been held. He also spoke in detail about how mismanagement of buses and bus routes has led to severe losses. “In recent years, buses have been detained due to lack of staff leading to disruptions in the frequency and schedules of buses. The ticket hikes have driven away customers. The routes have been arbitrarily scrapped by claiming that they are ‘non profitable’. On the other hand, new buses have been added in the Bandra Kurla Complex, while BEST’s own 230 buses have been sitting at depot unused, left to rust,” he said.
Continuing Gupta’s argument, Ashok Datar, economist and transport analyst added that the mismanagement of roads and the priority given to motorised vehicles was the main enemy of the BEST. “The biggest occupier of space and the cause of all the mayhem is parking,” he said. “Rather than managing the roads more efficiently, BMC has been putting the blame on the BEST services for running inefficiently.”
At the end of the panel, the audience asked about the future strategies that Amchi Mumbai Amchi BEST was looking to employ and how were they planning to build a broader support system. It also asked how inclusive and participatory was the nature of the campaign, since the city has multiple ‘publics’ with varied needs and agendas.
With all these problems, there is an urgent need to redefine the problem and seek a solution that is collectively drawn up. However, simply giving in to privatisation will not end the problem, there needs to be a holistic solution. A step towards finding a solution has been articulated by Amchi Mumbai, Amchi BEST in their Charter of Demands. https://amchibest.wordpress.com/2018/07/03/aamchi-mumbai-aamchi-best-campaign-demands/
The campaign Amchi Mumbai Amchi BEST has also recently released “People’s Plan for BEST” that contains alternatives from the people of the city. You can read the plan at https://amchibest.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/a-peoples-plan-for-best_2018-august.pdf