Demand for more BEST buses and further reforms rises
Geetanjali Minhas | August 9, 2019 | Mumbai
To revive bus ridership, the BMC-run Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) reduced its bus fares in Mumbai to minimum Rs 5 for non-AC buses as against Rs 8 earlier for the first five kilometres and capped maximum fare at Rs 20. For its AC buses the minimum fare has been brought down from Rs 20 earlier to Rs 6 and maximum fare is now Rs 25. Consequently, the daily bus ridership has increased from 17 lakh to 27 lakh. In 2005-06 the daily peak ridership was 45 lakh. The civic body has also written off BEST’s debt to BMC, made provision of funding on a monthly basis and begun decongesting some roads. The BMC has also promised to provide dedicated bus lanes and increase the fleet of BEST buses.
In space-starved Mumbai city where public transport is the life line and an essential service, these measures have brought relief to citizens. “The current municipal commissioner, Praveen Pradeshi, was open to the idea of reducing the BEST bus fares and fulfilled the long-pending demand which has predictably resulted in increased ridership. He has also verbally assured people of introducing dedicated bus lanes,” says Hussain Indorewala, co- conveneor, Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST (AMAB), a citizens forum for public transport that conducted studies on BEST and presented an alternative plan for revival called ‘The People Plan for BEST’.
“There was apathy from earlier BMC commissioners who wanted BEST buses to run without subsidy or wet lease buses. For us at that time it was a clear privatization agenda based on increasing fares, privatizing bus depots and bringing in contractors,” says Indorewala, who is faculty at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, adding that due to revenue losses from 2008 to 2018, a former BMC commissioner wanted the bus fleet reduced to 1,700. Pardeshi, however, has said that he wanted to increase the fleet to 10,000 buses.
AMAB now wants to address the remaining gaps for survival of BEST buses. These gaps include honouring the MoU with the union for smooth operation of buses. The BMC has unilaterally removed BEST from Industrial Relations Act. AMAB has also called for a financial plan with long term and consistent revenues for public transport with a policy for funding BEST.
“An important demand of the union is to merge the budget of BEST and BMC so that it becomes part of the system. While the BMC commissioner needs to be credited for reducing BEST, it has to be a public policy decision or a financial plan and not an individual decision,” says Indorewala. AMAB has also demanded new recruitments for understaffed BEST buses as the terms in the MoU say that 3,300 buses are to be retained as BEST buses and additional 2,500 mini buses to be wet-leased. Activists are opposed to the wet-leasing of buses and BMC engaging private contractors as quality and safety standards for general public get compromised. They are also opposing BMC’s decision to allow BEST depot lands for public parking as it incentivizes using private cars and also denies opportunities costs for using these lands for other public uses.
Under the cross subsidy model earlier, the electricity division of BMC cross subsidized its transport division, namely, BEST. After changes in the Electricity Act and the supreme court rulings cross utility subsidy was discontinued which resulted in mounting revenue deficit for the transport division and there was huge public outcry about public transport being essential services as against making profits.
Transport economist Shankar Modak says that across the world public utilities like transport, electricity, sanitation, public health, drainage system, and water supply system are subsidized by the government or local bodies. In such a situation we must change our thinking and take it upon us as a social responsibility and ask the municipal corporation to subsidize them for losses. “With Rs 70,000 crore fixed deposits the BMC, it must subsidize BEST buses much more than they are doing today.”
Modak adds that the concept of costs has to be reconsidered in terms of suburban transport and the government and planners must evaluate and factor in waiting time, accessibility costs, discomfort costs and energy costs. “Traffic congestion, potholes and slow moving traffic are a huge discomfort for the passenger, the price of which too is included in bus fares. In future, value addition will take place, saving time and we will have to focus on reducing travel time. It is important to reduce the number of vehicles in Mumbai,” he says.
This piece is based on a previous article by the authors published in Geoforum [Elsevier] in May 2019: available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/ S0016718519300764?via%3Dihub
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