With an average daily ridership of 35 lakh, the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) Undertaking forms the backbone of the city's public transport. However, the service, which is known as Mumbai's second lifeline after local trains, is having a rough ride owing to several issues like shrinking fleet, fund crunch, among others.
Consequently, passengers are at the receiving end as they continue to grapple with long waiting times at bus stops.
In this detailed article, The Free Press Journal attempts to understand the issues plaguing the once-robust service.
In December 2012, the fleet strength stood at 4,657, which has now shrunk to nearly 3,000. According to experts, the basic reason behind the unintended downsizing is the delay in the supply of modern buses and scrapping of vehicles due to completion of their codal life. On an average, around 12 old buses are phased out every month while the new buses are yet to fill the void.
The situation is particularly dire for AC double-deckers. A contract for procuring 900 such models was approved, but just 30 buses have been supplied to the BEST. Similarly, out of the 2,100 single-decker AC buses, only a meager 25% have been received after much delay. The primary culprit behind the issue is the extensive clearance and testing process for batteries, which mars timely delivery. Reduced fleet size has resulted in reduced service frequency, leading to frustratingly long waiting times at bus stops.
Wet lease model
To mitigate the impact of this crisis, BEST has increasingly turned to the wet lease model. Under this arrangement, private agencies provide vehicles, drivers and cover fuel expenses while the Undertaking pays a monthly lease and generates revenue from ticket sales. While this approach helps maintain some level of service, it doesn't address the root causes of the fleet shortage.
Officials had set ambitious targets of having a 7,000-strong fleet by early 2024 and 10,000 by 2026. However, the prevailing dire situation casts serious doubts on the feasibility of achieving these objectives. “Urgent action is required to reverse the declining trend in the fleet size and restore the trust of commuters in this vital public transport service,” said Ravi Raja, former BEST committee member. Delays in receiving new buses and challenges related to battery testing have exacerbated the problem. The impact is being acutely felt by the city's commuters, he underlined.
Ravi Raja, former BEST committee member |
Monthly loss of Rs 250 crore
BEST committee ex-member and labor union leader Sunil Ganachary pegged the BEST's monthly operating loss to Rs250 crore. Holding the BMC responsible for the mounting trouble, he averred, “The BEST's income took a hit when the BMC mandated ticket price reductions. It's the civic body's moral responsibility to bridge the gap between income and expenditure. The BMC previously promised to financially support the Undertaking, but has not fulfilled the commitment,” Ganacharya said.
Former member of the BEST committee and labor union leader, Sunil Ganachary |
Earlier, loss of transport division was cross subsidised by the profit of BEST's electricity wing, but the practice was stopped after 2016, creating economic hurdles for the Undertaking's transport division, he added. Referring to the Mumbai Municipal Act of 1888, transport experts said that it's mandatory for the BMC to provide transport and power services to the citizens. Consequently, it's the civic body's obligation to offer financial assistance to BEST.
In the light of these challenges, there are growing calls for the civic body to consider a BEST merger as it could alleviate the latter's financial burdens. In this fiscal, the Undertaking's revised accumulated losses stood at a whopping Rs 6,473 crore.
What is the solution?
'Aamchi Mumbai, Aamchi BEST', a dedicated citizen forum advocating for the revival of Mumbai's once-praised public bus system, has called for an urgent action to address the grave problem. The BEST's troubling decline is primarily due to a shift towards privatisation. Forum's Co-convenor Hussain Indorewala said, “The justification for privatisation has been the ensuing ‘efficiency’ and ‘viability,’ but the result is a mix of operational and financial disarray.”
The forum outlined several key demands, including the BEST's merger into the BMC, to restore the public bus service's former glory. Affordable public transport is a basic right for citizens and the BMC, India's wealthiest municipal corporation, should provide direct financial support to the BEST, sought the forum.
Hussain Indorewala |
“BEST bus transport has always received a financial subsidy from the Undertaking’s electricity division. It must now be subsidised directly by the owner of the whole undertaking, namely, the BMC,” added Indorewala.
BEST Kamgar Sangthan General Secretary Jagnarayan Kahar said, “Public transport is an essential service, not a business. Discontinue contractor-operated wet lease buses and restore the BEST to a fully public fleet,” he asserted.
Justifying his demand, he pointed out that at least three contractor-operated buses have caught fire in recent months while one contractor was terminated due to safety issues and another abruptly pulled out. “The problem is that the contractualisation model is based on overworking and underpaying workers and cutting costs on maintenance, which are the very aspects that ensure safety and reliability of services,” Kahar underscored.
According to Jagnarayan Kahar, in recent months, at least three contractor-operated buses have caught fire, due to which the safety and reliability of BEST services have become a serious concern. Furthermore, one contractor was terminated by BEST due to safety issues and another abruptly pulled out.
"The problem is that the contractualization model is based on overworking and underpaying workers and cutting costs on maintenance – the very aspects that ensure safety and reliability of services.
"The only way to improve the service quality of BEST is to restore BEST to a fully public fleet," said Kahar.
Jagnarayan Kahar |
The primary goals of urban planning should be universal access to sustainable public transport, said transport experts. They expressed concerns over discontinuation of several bus routes while giving 'priority' to the new Metro system.
According to a transport activist, the decision to reconfigure the BEST as a feeder service for the Metro corridors suggests that buses remain a cost-effective and preferred mode of transport for Mumbaikars. Discontinuation of long-established bus routes has inconvenienced commuters and placed additional strain on the suburban railway system, added the activist.
Another transport expert, Vinayak Samant, argued, “From a public perspective, the resumption of all old long routes is a necessity.” Batting for environmental sustainability, the experts urged authorities to promote a behavioral shift from private to public transport. They recommended the introduction of bus priority lanes on all arterial routes in the city.
“Prioritising universal access, resuming discontinued bus routes, increasing the fleet, promoting public transport and protecting public land are essential steps toward achieving a sustainable and efficient transportation system for the city,” said Ramesh Jadhav 58, a transport activist.
BEST seeking funds from BMC
The Undertaking has formally requested financial assistance of Rs3,419 crore from the BMC. The funds are urgently needed to acquire 2,237 new buses in a phase wise manner, according to a letter recently sent by BEST General Manager, Vijay Singhal to BMC chief Iqbal Singh Chahal.
In the letter, BEST highlighted clause no 3 within a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which it has signed with the Workers Union. The MoU mandates the maintenance of 3,337 buses and huge funds are required for the purpose. On the other front, there is urgency to procure new buses as 1,696 vehicles have been scrapped before March end while other 541 buses are slated for removal in this fiscal.
“Under the Capital Work Budget, a provision of Rs2,58,391.25 lakh was made in 2022-23 for 1,696 electric buses while Rs83,552.75 lakh was allocated in 2023-24 for 541 electric buses,” highlighted the letter.
Shrinking Fleet Numbers
Over the past few years, BEST's fleet has dwindled from 4657 buses to its current count of 3052, raising concerns about public transportation in Mumbai.
2012 ----- 4657
2014 ----- 4290
2015 ----- 4080
2016 ----- 3917
2019 ---- 3337
2023 ---- 3052 ( BEST owned 1381 + wet lease 1671
On average daily number of passengers of last few years