An impassioned and angry letter by the renowned author Kiran Nagarkar questioning the decline of the BEST public transport system has led to an outpouring of support for what was once considered one of the best transport systems in the world. Newspaper, Mumbai Mirror, published the open letter to the Mumbai Municipal Commissioner who chose to provide an equally public reply.
It opened the doors to a very public debate that has exposed the deleterious impact on Mumbai’s traffic due to the deliberate neglect of the BEST, despite the overwhelming support that the undertaking enjoys across all segments of society. Once considered the pride of Mumbai, BEST’s decline is entirely due to mismanagement, neglect and a series of opportunistic actions by time-serving bureaucrats and politicians. There has been no effort to understand traffic, public transport requirements or the changing dynamics of the city and its population after India’s economic liberalisation began 25 years ago.
What is worse, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, when one listens to the arguments of the BMC commissioner and BEST; or, clever rhetoric from genuine concern of the senior management. This was brought out most tellingly in an interesting round-table discussion organised by Mumbai Mirror with the BMC commissioner, the BEST chairman, senior officials and union leaders as well as concerned citizens, transport activists and urban planners.
Interestingly, there is complete unanimity that public transport is subsidised all over the world as a necessary infrastructure for public mobility, traffic management and checking pollution. So, why the debate and lack of funds in Mumbai? Mr Mehta argues that it is because the BEST will squander the money on staff benefits (incidentally the staff to bus ratio at the BEST is 8:1 as against 3:1 worldwide), while subsidies should be used to benefit the commuter. But, what is the explanation for failing to introduce modern fleet management systems for 25 years? Clearly, much of the blame lies with the BEST.
The need for segmented public transport in the form of air-conditioned (AC) buses, mini buses for busy hubs or as feeder routes to railway stations and long haul buses has been discussed since the mid 1990s. In the early 1990s, a private initiative called City Limouzines introduced luxurious AC buses on long routes in Mumbai causing a lot of excitement among people travelling from the distant suburbs to Nariman Point and Fort, especially to the stock exchange. They were looking forward to ditching the black-and-yellow taxis in favour of these aircraft like buses. But, City Limouzine soon shut down. Despite powerful political connections, it was harassed out of business. Its buses were not allowed to be parked in south Mumbai nor were they allowed to pick up passengers en route, since BEST had a monopoly.
I had then written about this and interviewed Dr P S Pasricha, the only doctorate in traffic management in the Mumbai police and its former Director General, about the feasibility of BEST introducing AC buses. He did a back-of-the envelope calculation to say that approximately 108 AC buses for ensuring a reasonable frequency and occupancy to persuade people to switch from private cars. Those were the early days of economic liberalisation when some of our best infrastructure (the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and over 40 flyovers in Mumbai) was being built in record time by a BJP-Sena government, through out-of-the box thinking and financing. The BEST, which was in a better financial shape, could have done its bit too.
Instead, the then General Manager of the BEST, who I interviewed, arrogantly told me that he would only introduce as many AC buses as BEST could afford. He soon introduced nine AC buses, which was meaningless and ignored the need for reliable segmented transport to reduce private cars. Today, BEST officials blame its poor performance on the explosion of car traffic and two-wheelers (the latter account for 70% of the vehicles on our roads) for their woes. Did people have an option but to find get their own transport?
What would strike the reader is that our discussion on public transport has not changed in 25 years. We are still making all the right noises and fail at implementation. Remember the Kinglong buses that were passed off as Volvos and exposed only after they began to catch fire with alarming frequency? Or the renewed contract for ticketing machines and integrated traffic management system that hasn’t worked? Who will investigate these dubious deals?
The BMC Commissioner may claim that his heart bleeds for the commuter, but its we, commuters, who are paying the price for the colossal mismanagement of BEST. The commissioner says, wet lease of buses is good for BEST and will reduce costs. But union leader Shashank Rao thinks it is an eyewash because BMC is willing to bear losses from wet lease operations but unwilling to fund BEST’s losses. He wants BMC must take full responsibility for BEST by making public transport expenditure a part of its main budget. Will this be a solution or a disaster? Clearly, without drastic reforms and a lot of give-and-take on all sides, the latter seems a bigger possibility. What is clear is that unless we opt for a radical transformation and holistic solutions, we will be discussing the same issues in another two decades.
Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of Moneylife Magazine and a Founder Trustee of Moneylife Foundation. She was awarded Padma Shri in 2006 for investigative journalism.