Mumbai Floods Show Why BEST Buses Need Another Chance

As Mumbaikars grapple with flooding, perhaps it’s time for policymakers to revamp the city’s BEST bus services.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read


As Mumbaikars grapple with flooding, perhaps it’s time for policymakers to revamp city’s BEST bus services.
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Mumbai’s once-fabled BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking) bus service has fallen on evil days. It was once held as the exemplar for bus undertakings elsewhere in the country, with its iconic red double-deckers resembling those in London. A few decades ago, its general manger was loaned to Delhi to advise the capital on how to run such an essential public service.

The single biggest reason for its terminal decline is that one can no longer estimate when a bus will arrive, whether it has room for passengers and, most importantly, how long it will take to reach its destination. This is particularly true of a peninsular city like Mumbai, where most commuters still travel south to work every day and return northwards in the evenings.

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BEST proved to be godsend for the people of Mumbai as local trains came to a halt due to rains.
BEST proved to be godsend for the people of Mumbai as local trains came to a halt due to rains.
(Photo courtesy: Aniket Gotety/ The Quint)

How BEST Went Downhill?

One needs a reminder that in our cities, where most people are employed in the ‘informal’ sector – over 90 per cent in the country’s commercial capital – the bus still remains the most people-friendly mode of public transport, outdoing the currently favoured Metro. The 4,000-strong fleet provides last-mile connectivity, is priced more affordably, and its capital costs are negligible compared to the Metro.

In 2008-09, 4.4 million people used BEST every day, but that gradually fell to 2.9 million in 2015-16.

Its loss has grown from Rs 411 crore a year to Rs 1,192 crore over the same period. However, nowhere in the world do bus services make a profit and there is an irrefutable case for subsidising these as the best road mass transport available.

BEST has got a bad deal from its political masters, the Shiv Sena-run BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation).

The Electricity Act of 2003 barred the BEST from cross-subsidising losses on its bus operations by charging a cess on the consumers of its power supply arm. That ought to have been the signal for the BMC to subsidise these operations as an invaluable public service.

But it has allowed the undertaking to run to seed by reducing the number of buses, including A/C vehicles, “rationalising” loss-making routes and it has even sold depots in a space-starved city.

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Flawed Parking Policy

The single biggest reason the BEST is in dire straits is that due to severe congestion on the roads, its services are hopelessly delayed. BMC consultants Lea Associates released a mobility study of the city last year and reported that between 2001 and 2015, the total number of vehicles has increased from 1.03 million to 2.55 million, which is almost 2.5 times.

During the same period, the total number of private vehicles – two wheelers and cars – has increased from 0.79 million to 2.27 million, nearly three times. It concluded:

This is alarming. The possible reasons could be convenience of the private vehicles for travel and easy auto finance. The other possible reasons could be overcrowding levels of suburban and bus modes and project implementation delays of public transport modes.
Mobility study by Lea Associates

The Sena-BJP combine at the city and state level has no qualms in blaming the “inefficiency” of the undertaking for the mess that it is in, without recognising that it is its anti-people stance in permitting the reckless increase in number of cars that is largely responsible. This is reflected in its antediluvian parking policy which, till very recently, permitted cars and even private buses to park freely on the roads, day and night, obstructing the passage of buses in the process.

While parking fees fetch a derisory Rs 8 crore a year, it should be possible to increase these to Rs 1,000 crore, at least half of which should go to the BEST. This is the case with London’s inner city congestion charges.

Snapshot

Putting BEST buses on track

  • BEST is struggling to survive with a fall in the number of commuters from 4.4 million in 2008-09 to 2.9 million in 2015-16.
  • Political interference responsible for the pathetic state with Electricity Act 2003 barring the BEST from charging cess for cross-subsidising losses.
  • Recent mobility studies suggest higher number of private vehicles has led to rise in congestion and increase in commuting time.
  • BEST can add upto Rs 1,000 crore to its revenue share by a change in the parking policy for cars and private buses.
  • Other measures that should be taken for revamping BEST include: Writing off loans, providing funds and facilitating reserved routes.

Will Privatisation Help?

With the current thrust towards part-privatisation, the BEST bosses are toying with a “package” of proposals, which have still not been made public. Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta has spoken of introducing “private sector efficiency”.

Public transport advocates fear that this will only further cripple this mainstay. If fares are hiked for distances above 4 km, for instance, this will lead to a further drop in usage, since share-taxis and rickshaws, which add to congestion and pollution, are already giving buses a run for their money. The figures tell the story: On a day in recent months when autorickshaws went on strike, BEST logged 4.4 million passengers.

BEST wants to go in for wet leases for an estimated 1,250 buses, whereby a private contractor hires the buses for which BEST gets a fixed revenue. The contractor provides drivers and maintains the vehicles. Where these will be serviced, however shoddily, except on roads, adding to congestion? This is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater: A logical next step may be to hire out the remaining depots, if not allowing commercial development on them as a source of revenue.

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‘Bus Karo’ Slogan for Mumbaikars

One should recall the ill-conceived experiment in Delhi with the “killer” Blue Line bus services, which were a form of privatisation. Because the operators stood to make more revenue by plying buses faster and taking more passengers – also stopping to pick them up where there weren’t bus stops, adding to congestion – there were accidents galore, with death toll being published in the Indian Express on its front page. Belatedly, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit put an end to it.

As was only too evident in the deluge in Mumbai on 29 August, the BEST was the only service operational and could ply on waterlogged roads when trains come to a halt.

Activists noted how the staff retained its basic humanity and came to the rescue of stranded commuters, unlike taxis, including aggregators, which looked the other way while fleecing passengers.

The BEST, a wholly-owned BMC company, ought to be supported and expanded. Its loans should be written off – which is bound to happen in the case of every Metro – and funds provided to modernise the fleet and provide for working capital. There should be reserved routes for buses so that they reach destinations quickly, without cars and other impediments en route. A good slogan for Mumbaikars is “Bus Karo!”

(The author is a senior Mumbai-based journalist.)

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