The Mumbai civic body running the iconic BEST buses is having a bumpy ride due to mounting losses, prompting it to initiate reform measures.
However, these measures are facing a stiff resistance from employees and unions who feel they are a move towards eventually privatising the civic-run undertaking.
Run by the 112-year-old Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), Mumbai’s public buses have been a pride of the metropolis and acquired legendary status over the years for their prompt service and efficiency.
But their status has taken a beating and the BEST administration is now talking of a “course correction” and looking at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to bail them out financially.
The BMC is the parent body of the BEST undertaking.
“No doubt BEST needs some course correction, which will have a positive impact on its financial health. We hope BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta will fulfil his promise to help BEST financially when we follow the conditions put forth by him.
“We have started implementing most of the reformative and cost-cutting measures suggested by him,” BEST Committee Chairman Anil Kokil said.
BEST is struggling to pay salaries to its over 40,500 staffers and it had to borrow from banks to make the payments, officials have said.
This has led the BMC to take measures such as withdrawal of special allowances to employees to cut cost and wet-leasing of buses from private players.
These steps have not gone down well with staffers. To oppose the administration’s plan to hire buses from private contractors, an employee union gave an indefinite strike call last week, but deferred the stir after the matter went to the industrial court.
“The court’s ruling will be binding on every stakeholder,” said Kokil, a corporator from the Shiv Sena, which controls the BMC, the country’s richest civic body.
The transport undertaking, which operates on 483 routes, spread across the metropolis and adjoining Thane and Navi Mumbai, is incurring an estimated Rs 2-crore loss daily.
Its fleet of 3,337 buses, including 120 double- deckers, has failed to recover even the cost of operation. BEST buses once used to ferry around 45 lakh passengers on a daily basis, but they now carry only 29 lakh passengers a day.
The BEST undertaking incurred losses of Rs 858 crore in 2014-15, Rs 905 crore in 2015-16 and Rs 990 crore in 2016- 17.
In November last, Mehta had asked BEST to implement without delay reforms suggested by the BMC to get financial assistance.
The civic chief had said if the reforms were not implemented, he may ask the Maharashtra government to dissolve the BEST Committee and appoint an administrator.
Following this, BEST last month decided to rope in private contractors to operate buses.
The BEST Committee, the policy-making body of the transport wing which comprises corporators, cleared a proposal to wet-lease 450 buses for seven years for Rs 612 crore. Of these, 200 each will be AC and non-AC mini and 50 midi buses.
Under the provisions of wet-leasing, these buses will be procured and driven by private contractors and only conductors will be from BEST.
Announcing the wet-leasing provisions, BEST General Manager Surendrakumar Bagde had said the move will improve efficiency of the undertaking and reduce costs.
However, the union is not impressed.
“We oppose the move as it is a ploy to privatise the transport body which will lead to retrenchment of hundreds of our drivers,” BEST Workers’ Union president Shashank Rao said.
Senior BEST Committee member Ravi Raja has come out in support of the proposed reforms given the financial crisis BEST is facing.
“Financial mismanagement has driven this body to the current state. BEST immediately needs to buy over 1,000 new buses. But, unfortunately, it does not have money to pay the salaries to its staffers.
“Senior officers work as per political guidelines given to them. Therefore, in the given circumstances, reformative measures are a must for this body,” Raja said.
BEST undertaking spokesperson Hanumant Gofane said, “We are in the process of implementing cost-cutting measures and reforms by wet-leasing buses, cutting down staff size by freezing recruitment besides reducing allowances.