BEST of times, worst of times

bhanuj kappal | Updated on January 17, 2018

Legacy on wheels: The 143-year-old Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport began with trams and started a bus service in 1926 Image: The Hindu Archives   -  the hindu archives

In the red: At its peak, the service ferried over 50 lakh people daily; that is down to 30 lakh today. The fleet is ageing, but there is no money for replacements Image: Paul Noronha   -  paul noronha

After a decade of slow decline, Mumbai’s iconic transport service finds itself in a jam of its own making

If you imagine Mumbai as a beating heart, its railways and bus system are its two main, cholesterol-clogged arteries. Together they carry 95 lakh passengers all across the massive metropolis each day, making cheap transport accessible to everyone in the city. Often overshadowed by the more photogenic local trains, BEST — the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport undertaking — is a central fixture of Mumbai life with its rickety red-and-silver buses, iconic doubledecker buses and khaki-clad conductors.

The double-decker has featured in many Bollywood films, including 1980’s Shaan and 1975’s Chhoti Si Baat; renowned artist Sudarshan Shetty recently paid tribute to it with a 9,000-kg installation, ‘Flying Bus’, at the Bandra Kurla Complex. An integral part of the city’s iconography and the punchline to many terrible jokes in the perennial Mumbai vs Delhi/ Bengaluru debate, BEST was once among the world’s most efficient public transport systems.

Not any longer. Losses and expenses are at unsustainable levels and rising, even as revenues drop. This June, the BEST committee announced it would outsource a part of its fleet — a move that many dismiss as too little, too late. The BEST Workers’ Union is not pleased and has threatened to go on strike, adding to the organisation’s woes. After over a decade of slow decline, the 143-year-old institution finds itself in the middle of a full-blown crisis.

The BEST story is no different from that of the other public sector undertakings in the country — a once-proud organisation brought down by mismanagement and political interference.

It goes back to 1873, when the Bombay Tramway Company was set up and licensed to run a horsedrawn tramway service across the city. In 1905, the company was bought by the municipality’s Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways company, for the princely sum of ₹98.5 lakh.

With its monopoly over the city’s electricity supply, BEST started its first electric tram service in 1907. The huge success spurred it to introduce double-deckers in 1920, making Mumbai the first Indian city to have doubledecker public transport.

In July 1926, BEST introduced a motor bus service and nearly six lakh passengers had used it before the end of the year. That number jumped to 38 lakh the following year. In 1947, the company became an autonomous body under the city’s municipal corporation and remains so to this day. Over the years, it continued to be at the forefront of innovation in the public transport sector. Some of these innovations proved shortlived — such as the postboxes that appeared in all buses for a brief period from 1928 to 1930. Others, like the trolley bus and the double-decker bus were more successful. At its peak, the service ferried over 50 lakh people daily.

That figure has fallen drastically — 42 lakh in 2004-05 and 30 lakh in 2016. The transport division reported a loss of ₹1,038 crore in 2015-16 and the estimates for this financial year are just as dire. The fleet is ageing, but there is no money to replace them. Recent estimates suggest the company is earning ₹13 per passenger while spending ₹22. An appeal to the Maharashtra government for a ₹3,000-crore bailout has not elicited any response so far.

The company’s problems, however, are more than just a lack of liquidity.

Stranded on the road

“We’re spending ₹1.30 for every rupee we earn,” explains the long-time BEST committee member Ravi Raja over tea at the company headquarters in Colaba. He and his colleagues are surprisingly candid about the prevailing problems, their comments laced with humour and a touch of resignation... fatigue almost — the fight to keep this public institution afloat has obviously taken its toll.

“We’ve got 502 bus routes,” Raja continues. “Of those, only six operate on a profit. About 235-240 just about break even, and the rest operate on a loss.”

There are several reasons for the lack of demand in a city choking with commuters. The biggest problem is traffic congestion, made worse by the absence of a dedicated bus lane, leading to slow and unpredictable bus services.

This is proving a fatal flaw in a city that is always in a hurry. The emergence of cheaper transport such as shared taxi and shared rickshaw has dealt a further blow. Additionally, private buses operate in a grey area and poach commuters waiting at BEST’s bus stands. “The biggest problem for the commuter is that he doesn’t know when the next bus is likely to come,” says veteran transport journalist Rajendra B Aklekar, who recently published a book called Halt Station India, on Mumbai’s railways and trams.

Matters aren’t helped either by the island city’s unique geography, which funnels the traffic through a handful of parallel roads. Any disruption, such as the never-ending ‘infrastructure improvements’, affects a disproportionate number of routes. A regulatory framework that has long ignored public transport in favour of pleasing car owners has exacerbated the problem.

Workforce at wit’s end

High overheads and rising maintenance costs add to BEST’s litany of woes, as does the organisation’s high employee count. “In Bengaluru, each bus has five employees. We have eight,” says Raja. Many of these problems have been around for long, and it’s hard not to blame the BMC and the BEST committee for failing to adapt. The committee members point fingers at the lack of funding or support from the BMC and the state government.

“See, anywhere in the world, public transport works on a loss,” says Raja. “But either the state government or your parent organisation subsidises it.”

Funding troubles apart, mismanagement — “some bad decisions”, as Raja puts it — has certainly contributed to BEST’s dramatic decline.

Aklekar is less than forgiving in his analysis, laying the blame squarely on internal politics.

“The politicians have undone the undertaking, that’s the gist of the story,” he says. “Every two years the committee changes, and every corporator who comes in has their own priorities. Their ultimate ambition is to get a route in their area.”

According to transport experts, BEST’s failure to transform into a feeder service for the railways and Metro, rather than continue as a parallel to train services, has proved costly.

Course corrections that weren’t

BEST has explored ways to increase revenue and attract passengers, but most of these have either failed or never got off the ground. The installation of advertising screens on buses failed to make a difference financially, as did a bill deposit facility aboard the vehicles. A plan to introduce a GPS system that can inform waiting commuters when the next bus is due remains stuck in internal politicking.

A proposal to tap the commercial potential of BEST bus depots, many of which are in prime locations, has also failed to take off.

Some initiatives backfired, sometimes spectacularly. In Andheri West, the commercial development of a bus depot resulted in a two-storey mall in which all 90 shops are lying idle, a lawsuit against the developer for failing to pay arrears.

And then there’s the curious case of the airconditioned (AC) buses. In 2007-08, the BMC purchased a fleet of AC buses and presented them with much fanfare as Kinglong buses from China, only to be discovered later as ‘Made in Punjab’. A spate of problems followed, from leaky or non-functioning ACs to frequent breakdowns and an inability to climb flyovers. Passengers soon learnt to mistrust and avoid these buses — from an eager 85,000 in the initial years, the numbers dwindled to just 8,000.

“The average daily turnout for the AC bus is 44, when it should be 700-800,” says BEST committee member Shivji Prabhunarayan Singh. “That means a loss of ₹1-1.5 crore every day. If we stop these AC buses, then we might be saved.”

Running on borrowed time

Meanwhile, BEST continues to trundle along on soft loans from the BMC. Some of its losses are subsidised by the 10.5 lakh customers of the profitable electricity division through a Transport Division Loss Recovery surcharge on their power bills. BEST recently proposed levying the surcharge on customers of private electricity suppliers, but that is politically contentious and highly unlikely to happen, besides being financially unsound.

Only a radical restructuring can turn the organisation around, but that calls for a longterm commitment and political will, both of which appear to be scarce commodities at BEST Bhavan and BMC headquarters alike.

A Mumbai without BEST buses may be hard to imagine, and even a service with curtailed routes would have a major impact on the city’s millions of commuters. Private bus companies might move in, but only if they’re allowed to drop unprofitable routes and raise prices beyond the means of the city’s more disadvantaged citizens.

And it will only increase pressure on the city’s already over-saturated railways. “It will push people to use trains,” says Aklekar.

“They’re falling and dying, every day 10 people die. There will be no viable alternative to the trains.”

But he doesn’t think the situation is irredeemable. According to Aklekar, what BEST needs to do urgently is find out what the consumer actually wants and adapt accordingly.

“They should get back to the people and try to woo the commuter actively.”

(Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based freelance writer)

Published on August 19, 2016

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