BEST strike: Winners, losers and victims on the political chessboard

Mumbai: Last week was marked by the conclusion of the longest transport strike in the history of the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) Undertaking, which had begun on January 8. The strike was by led Shashank Rao, leader of the BEST Workers’ Union, along with the BEST Sanyukta Kamgar Kruti Samiti. More than 33,000 employees of the BEST, 10,000 of whom were from the Shiv Sena’s Kamgar Union, participated in the strike, crippling Mumbai’s public transport for nine days. But after the strike was called off on January 16, when Rao and the employees were celebrating victory, the Sena was found to be engaging in face-saving attempts. Anil Parab, Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from the Sena, claimed in a press conference that Rao had misguided the BEST employees.

“As per the Bombay High Court orders, employees will get a hike of Rs 3,500. However, Rao has told the employees the hike will be Rs 7,000,” said Parab. He further alleged Rao had differentiated between the demands of junior and senior employees. “At the end of the strike, the senior employees will get nothing. There is no assurance that no action will be taken against the striking employees. This was Rao’s attempt to test the political waters at the cost of senior employees,” claimed Parab. However, Rao dismissing the Sena’s accusations, said he has always worked for the striking employees. “The Shiv Sena had a hidden agenda to privatise the BEST and their attempt failed miserably,” said Rao.  The Sena has also accused Rao of playing into the hands of other political parties. “There were invisible hands behind the strike,” said Parab, refusing to name any party. A leader of the Shiv Sena, requesting confidentiality, told The Free Press Journal they were offering a better deal to the employees, when issues were discussed at the Mayor’s residence on the second day of strike. “However, an adamant Rao, for his personal gains, refused our demands. The employees got a much poorer deal through court orders,” he said.

According to him, the Sena was willing to negotiate was a package of Rs 150 crore, for a rise in pay scales. “The only conditions were the immediate withdrawal of strike and addressing the demands of both junior and senior employees. But the court order has only granted one-third of what we were ready to give,” he said. A legislator from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), also requesting confidentiality said, “This was an attempt by the BJP to corner the Sena before they begin negotiations on the pre-poll alliance. Throughout the strike, the BJP maintained silence and allowed the tide to turn against the Sena”.  A Congress leader, confirming this, added that the BEST elections are due next month. “The Sena is not as powerful as it was during its heyday. The BJP is trying to corner it on all fronts before they negotiate their alliance in a crucial election year. We will see many such attempts as we approach the Vidhan Sabha elections,” he added. Both leaders agreed that the opposition stood to gain in the silent tussle between BJP and Sena.The Sena corporator accused the muicipal cmmissioner of playing into the hands of the BJP. “The proposal for merger of the BMC and the BEST budget was passed by both standing committee and the general body of the BMC. The municipal commissioner has not yet forwarded it to the state government for approval,” he said.On the political chessboard, Rao has emerged victorious. “Not a single bus ran on the streets of Mumbai, despite the call for withdrawal by the Sena”, said a leader from the BJP. The total strength of the BEST Workers’ Union is 13,000 and that of the Sena’s Kamgar union 10,000. “But the employees stood united at Rao’s call. This will give him leverage in the upcoming BEST elections and will allow him to step out of his father’s shadow”, the BJP leader said.

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