More than 32,000 employees of Mumbai’s civic transport went on an indefinite strike on Tuesday for over various demands which include higher salaries, inciting the state government to invoke the Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act (MESMA) against them. The protest by the employees of the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) coincided with the two days nationwide strike which was called by the unions to protests against anti-worker policies and unilateral labour reforms alleged by the government.
The state government invoked the MESMA after the strike affected nearly 25-lakh daily commuters. Some commuters complained that auto rickshaw drivers were trying to take advantage of the situation and were charging five times more than the normal rates. A meeting between Brihanmumbai Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta and leaders of the workers’ union that has called the strike failed to arrive at a positive result.
“The strike is illegal and the agitating staffers have been asked to resume work without delay, considering the hardships faced by the lakhs of passengers. The striking staffers must understand that the government has invoked the MESMA,” a senior civic official told agencies. He also said that, the top officials of the BEST administration would meet the union leaders later in the day to end the stalemate. Otherwise, doors are open for the BEST administration to take action accordingly.
The employees are demanding higher salaries and merging budget of the loss-making transport undertaking with that of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), deliberations on new wage agreement, resuming appointments on compassionate grounds and a bonus equivalent to that of the civic body’s employees.
The BEST has a fleet of over 3,200 red-colour buses, which criss-cross the metropolis and also operate services in the neighbouring districts like Thane and Navi Mumbai. It’s the second biggest mode of transport in Mumbai after local trains which carry almost 80 lakhs passengers on a daily basis.
BEST workers’ union leader Shashank Rao said that since their meeting with Mehta failed to yield any positive outcome, they were continuing with the strike. He said a final decision to end the strike depended on how the administration responds to their demands.
A BEST spokesperson said as many as 10 buses were ransacked in different depots by unidentified persons during the night, but no untoward incident was reported since morning.
Meanwhile, the Central Railway, Western Railway and the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) were operating extra local trains and buses to ferry the stranded passengers to their destinations. Several commuters were seen rushing to hitch share auto rickshaw rides and some walked to their workplaces.
Anoop Jagtap, who daily travels from suburban Kurla to the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) in BEST buses, had to walk two kilometres to reach his office. “I had to walk today as there were no buses and auto-rickshaw drivers were fleecing people by charging five times more than the normal rate,” he alleged. “I reached my office late by over an hour. I hope the strike will end by evening when I have to go back home,” he said.
“Why torture innocent passengers? What wrong have we done to BEST employees and their management?” Anita Nayak, a Ghatkopar resident, told PTI while waiting at a bus stop to get some mode of transport to reach her workplace in suburban Mulund whereas some commuters said that it’s always the passengers who bore the brunt of the feud between the BEST administration and its employees.
Earlier, while responding to a call given by their union leaders, the disturbed staff didn’t take out any bus from all the twenty seven depots as even the BEST administration and an industrial court declared the strike as an illegal act. Meanwhile, union leader Rao said that they hadn’t received the copy of the court order till they went for the strike.