Giving no relief to over 50 lakhs commuters in Mumbai, the indefinite strike by the employees of the city’s civic transport BEST continued for the fourth consecutive day on Friday marking it as the ‘longest in decades’. Even the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed against the bus strike in the Bombay High Court failed to bring out a solution. However, the court told the transport workers’ union that it should not hold the city to ransom. The court also appointed a two-member committee to conduct meetings and make attempts to resolve the issues.
Moreover, advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni told the court that the Maharashtra government had set up a committee, headed by the chief secretary, to hold talks with the union and the Secretaries of the urban development and transport departments were also part of this committee while the BMC and BEST officials attended the meeting.
BMC Opposition leader Ravi Raja stated, “Though BEST is considered the Second lifeline of Mumbai, both the BMC and the state government are not serious towards the inconvenience faced by the commuters who are being tortured due to this strike and the administration has failed to provide any alternative transport facility during the last four days. The local citizens are sandwiched between the BJP and Shiv Sena political clash and it’s a point of concern that even Sena chief failed to find a solution.”
After the unsuccessful seven hours-long talks between the union leaders, BMC Mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar, Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta, BEST Commissioner Surendra Kumar Bagde, and Shiv Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray on Thursday, the dubiety around the possibility of the privatisation of city’s second-most popular transport network caught fire as one of the major reasons behind this longest ever strike! The Mumbaikars pointed fingers both at the Shiv Sena and the BJP, the alliance ruling the Maharashtra government, for their negligence and political blame game, while netizens on social media attacked the Sena Chief for “roaming carefree in Marathwada and neglecting the stranded commuters”.
Nearly 32,000 Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) employees are on indefinite strike since Tuesday over various demands, including higher salaries and merger of budgets leading to nearly 3,700 BEST buses going off the roads. The other demands include bonus payment, gratuity to former staffers, staff quarters issues, and those regarding gradation of junior staff, for which no proposal was made. While enduring the agony and expressing wrath over the delay in resolving the chaos, the city commuters also scoffed at the loss-making undertaking of BEST considering the BMC is the richest municipal body in the country. Taking advantage of the situation, the auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers charging much more than the normal rates were an added pain for the harassed commuters.
BMC Mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar spoke to AV and asserted, “The BEST employees unions should not stretch the strike and must call off. They must consider the losses that BEST is facing at this moment. BMC has never supported and will never support the privatisation of the city’s civic transport system. We have been in discussions with the union leaders for the last four days for a substantial solution and trying our best to end it with a positive solution.”
While civil society management experts believe that it is the civic body’s duty to subsidise such vital public transports services, the future of BEST has remained a topic of debate since a very long time. On the other hand, BMC wants the BEST to restructure and improve efficiency before asking for additional funds.
BEST conductor Narayan Sawant regretted, “We apologise for the inconvenience caused to the Mumbaikars due to the strike but we are being compelled to do so. We have been sent notices under the Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act (MESMA) to vacate our flats given by the BEST. The administration should tackle this issue as early as possible. The state politicians have an eye on 26 depots and 400 acres of land owned by BEST. It seems a step by step privatisation of the BEST is a near future.”
The state government had moved quickly to invoke the Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act (MESMA) against the striking BEST employees, while its management asked them to end the stir and come to the negotiating table. The BEST administration had cracked the whip, issuing notices to over 2,000 staffers to vacate houses provided by the undertaking. A total of 358 employees have been booked under this act so far. Also, 333 contempt notices have been issued for violating the industrial court order which restrained the workers from going on strike.
Aamchi MUMBAI Aamchi BEST, a forum of citizens for public transport, notes with alarm a series of developments regarding BEST bus services. In a case study on the BEST likely to contract out bus services to private firms, it says, “BEST’s decision to engage private contractors to provide bus services, in place of its own services, cannot be justified even in narrow financial terms” although the Municipal Commissioner and the BEST management claim that this policy will yield large savings and reduce BEST’s financial deficit.
The privatisation of Mumbai’s BEST services is looked upon as dismantling an important institution and permanent damage to the system which has provided Mumbai a critical public service for decades. Mumbaikars believe that the will and commitment to finding an end to the ongoing woes is missing and such shrug-and-wait attitude of both the BJP and Sena will be costly for the parties in the election year if they fail to address the issue permanently or if they attempt to join hands with private players for BEST’s survival.
CPI(M) leader Prakash Reddy said, “Delaying of salaries, reduction in the number of buses, bus depots being rented to private organisations are altogether a well-planned conspiracy of the state government. The BJP government has always favoured the privatisation both in Centre as well as at State level. The BEST workers were forced to enter into the strike. As lakhs of commuters use this essential public service, it is the duty of the BMC to subsidise it.”
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