Mumbai’s iconic red bus, that has also starred in many a film, has been the city’s staple feature. It’s the second most used mode of transport after the suburban trains.
But over the past few years, the bus service, run by the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST), has been incurring huge losses (this year’s projected loss is around Rs 1,000 crore). The administration, overseen by the municipal corporation, has reacted to this loss by suggesting reducing routes, privatisation and a hike in fares. The labour union has been resisting these moves, and now, citizens groups have joined hands to push for a subsidised and efficient public transport. On August 7, celebrated as BEST Day, civic action group ‘Amchi Mumbai Amchi BEST’ released an action plan for this purpose.
Filmmaker Saeed Mirza, who released the plan, tells Outlook about why he thought it imperative to join the movement. “It is wrong to say that the public transport should be financially viable on its own. Public transport is heavily subsidised the world over because you’re providing a service for the citizens and not a product. It is the fundamental right of all citizens to get an efficient and affordable transport system.”
The plan Mirza released mentions the drop in the ridership of BEST buses. It 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 city’s pride, will soon be irrelevant,” it states. It further says that the deficit suffered by BEST can be brought down, provided efforts are made. “This is not a very large figure for the BMC to bear. The BMC enjoys an annual budget of over Rs 27,000 crore, a significant part of which remains unutilised at the end of each year,” it reads.
The point of contention is not whether the BMC can fund BEST. Surely it can. But does it want to? BMC commissioner Ajoy Mehta, who faced much criticism for focusing on the financial part of BEST over ‘service’, says the civic agenmcy’s administration will retain complete control even if private operators run the routes. “We suggested the wet lease model, where the private operators would own, maintain and run the routes but we would control the ticket prices, with our conductors on board. The tenders suggest that acquiring of buses through private players is far cheaper than the present prices. I am willing to subsidise the BEST system as long as I’m not subsidising the inefficiencies. At present, BEST does not even have money to pay gratuity to their retired employees. We are guaranteeing that not one employee from the current fleet will lose his job. We are hopeful the situation is resolved soon,” says Mehta.
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber