The BMC has decided to not sell any more BEST land to pay off the transport undertaking’s ballooning debt.

Addressing a round table  organised by Mumbai Mirror to discuss ways to save Mumbai’s troubled bus service, BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta said: “Family silver cannot be sold to take care of your inefficiencies. I repeat, there’s no way you can sell family silver.”

He said he has received proposals for redevelopment for BEST depots but he has rejected them all. “These are public lands. Mumbai

is land starved. We are not going to get land again. We are going to increase our fleets. BEST is going to be vibrant. Just because today we have fallen on bad days, I sell my family silver and sit on the street with an umbrella? That is not happening,” he said.

Following a series of open letters published in this paper on the crumbling BEST bus service, beginning with author Kiran Nagarkar’s impassioned plea to the BMC commissioner to save BEST on April 27, Mumbai Mirror hosted a round-table conference Wednesday last to debate the future of the bus service. The conference was attended by almost everyone who wrote to the paper, from Nagarkar to BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta to the Forum against Oppression of Women to think-tanks such as the Urban Design Research Institute and the World Resources Institute, as well as senior BEST officials.

On one particular issue — that of selling BEST land to raise funds to help pay off the organisation’s debts, something that has already happened with the Kurla and Mahim bus depots — commissioner Mehta was adamant that the practice should be stopped and categorically stated that he will not allow BEST to sell any of its land in the city to builders.

“We should stop it. Family silver cannot be sold to take care of your inefficiencies. I repeat, there’s no way you can sell family silver,” he said. “Proposals have come to me and I have rejected them. These are public lands. Mumbai is land

starved. We are not going to get land again. We are going to increase our fleets. BEST is going to be vibrant. Just because today we have fallen on bad days, I sell my family silver and sit on the street with an umbrella? That is not happening.”

There are 29 BEST depots in the city, with an average area of 3 lakh sq feet per depot. The rights to land in the Kurla bus depot were the first to be auctioned in 2006 under a scheme to modernise them that involved handing the private builder part of the depot land for commercial exploitation. The Mahim depot was the second to be auctioned, and the rights were won by the same company — Parsvnath Developers. In both cases, Parsvnath went on to sell the rights to other builders at a substantial profit (in the case of Kurla, Parsvanath reportedly sold the rights for over Rs 250 crore after buying them for Rs 42 crore). Both instances happened before Mehta’s tenure began.

The rationale for this scheme was to find an additional stream of revenue to help offset the  organisation’s losses.

BEST has an outstanding of roughly Rs 4000 crore already on its books and in addition to that, its losses each year amount to approximately Rs 1000 crore. The daily ridership has been falling since 2009-10,when it carried 43.7 lakh commuters a day. By February,2017, that number was reportedly down to Rs 25.9 lakh, a drop of nearly 41 per cent . The number of buses has also fallen from 4,366 in 2012-13 to 3749 in 2016-17, further curtailing BEST’s ability to serve all the citizens of this city.

It isn’t only BEST property that Mehta stated would not be sold. He also stated that the municipality will not sell the large tracts of octroi land that have come back to it following the introduction of the Goods & Services Tax (GST). “I have put them in the Development Plan,” he said. “They will go for our own transport hubs. Every inter-city bus comes right into the city when they should stop at a terminus, like an airport or train station and then the local transport can take over from them,” he said.

The Commissioner said that the city cannot afford to have inter-city buses parked all across the city, with passengers getting off in the middle of the road and causing traffic disruptions. This system would apply to delivery trucks as well, which, Mehta said, should also end their trips outside the city and their cargo can then be picked up by smaller vehicles to prevent congesting the city. “There is no way [they] are getting this BEST land for any purpose,” he said.

THE FUTURE OF BEST: AJOY MEHTA ANSWERS QUESTIONS

The future of BEST: Ajoy Mehta answers questions

By Harsh Vora

Mumbaikars, unwilling to let the iconic red workhorse of city transport collapse or fall into private hands, raised some tough questions before Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta, who answered them at the Mirror round table. He spoke at length about the bus operator’s complex problems, from its falling revenue and popularity to ballooning costs, and laid out his ideas for reviving it.

One plan that has generated much controversy requires BEST to wet-lease buses from private players, allow them to bring in their own drivers and operate the bus service under BEST’s colours and control.

Mehta tried to assure wary citizens that the civic body was not handing over BEST’s keys to the private sector and simply wanted to make it a financially sound, efficient and convenient bus service, which, with the right push, could even beat Ola and Uber. Here are edited excerpts of his responses:

■ Why are you for privatising BEST?

Privatising and privatisation, the definition depends on how you look at it. Are we privatising BEST ticket prices? We are not. Are we privatising bus routes? We are not. We will control prices and routes — we will control everything. But if we can get cheaper buses from outside (through wet leasing), why not?

Even for that arrangement, we have inserted clauses to protect our employees. We are saying that look the drivers you [private players] recruit should have domicile of Maharashtra. The first preference should be given to BEST drivers who want to migrate. If their children meet the recruitment requirements, they should be given priority. All new drivers will have to undergo police verification so we are sure of their background and character. We want to ensure there is no damage to the employment market and it is protected.

We are trying to do it [wet leasing] very cautiously. There is only that small component of getting buses (from the private sector). Ticket prices, no. Pricing will remain in public hands as it is happening today.


Participants at the round table listen to Ajoy Mehta’s opening remarks; Union leader Shashank Rao in discussion
with Mirror editor Meenal Baghel

■ Should big buses make way for smaller, 22-seater ones?

We have said rationalise. There is no one size that fits all. There will be routes where you will need big buses, routes where you will need mid-sized buses and routes where you will need minibuses. Let us not run routes based on whims, fancies and political considerations. They must be run on merit.

■ Should shorter routes be introduced to connect within suburbs?

Yes, but this is again part of route rationalising. BEST might have to refigure its routes.

■ Mumbai will soon have a metro and monorail network. Should BEST alter its route to cater to the changing transport scenario?

Yes. Route scheduling is a very dynamic process. You cannot say I have scheduled my route today and it will remain that way for 50 years. It cannot. If a metro route opens up, you may have to rethink your routes. Once you have a public information system, GPS in buses and you are able to log the routes into the system, your route planning will become dynamic. BEST will be able to even change the route every 15 minutes. If there is suddenly a crowd at one place, you can send a bus and start moving people out. That is why we have kept this [route scheduling] in our hand. How many buses will be deployed will be decided by us, not the private sector.


(Clockwise from right): Sandhya Gokhale, Hussain Indorewala and Vidyadhar Date; Sucheta Dalal and Shirish Patel talking to Ajoy Mehta

■ Will more AC buses be introduced?

AC buses are not the final solution. They should be there in a city like Mumbai, there is a market for AC buses. But schedule routes correctly. Please deploy AC buses where the demand exists. But don’t price yourself out.

In the tender of wet leasing of electric buses that we have received, AC electric buses have turned out to be only 10 per cent more (expensive) than diesel buses. This is on the wet leasing route. On our route, it is more expensive. If it just 10 per cent more, we need to seriously look at BEST’s fleet combination. You will get fleet combination flexibility only in wet leasing. If you don’t (go for it), you are saddled with one bus for 15 years.

You decide ticket prices, but bring in flexibility in your operations because it helps citizens.

■ Do you think dedicated bus lanes will improve the eiciency of BEST?

Yes, there is no doubt about. There are only two concerns. First, dedicated bus lanes in most parts of the world are created in a greenfield city, a city which is being developed. The way we put railway lines in Mumbai. When you try to put lanes in an existing city, you have to do it a little more carefully. Still, I have said that even at the cost of some disruption, we must create dedicated bus lanes.

Most of the roads where a lane can come up, metro work is going on. So already one or two lanes are blocked. If you block another, there could be chaos. We need to look at it carefully.

The second concern is that once you have dedicated road space for buses, you should also have that many buses running on the stretch. See what happened in Delhi: bus lanes were created, but there were no buses running on them. People said we are living horribly, using autos and taxis, and now you have put this and buses are not there. You have reduced us to three lanes and made things worse.

So we have said suggest a bus lane and have a fairly large number of buses on the lane so people are encouraged to leave their cars. They will see a bus zipping past every two minutes and think: ‘I am stuck in my car in this traffic.’ But if the bus doesn’t come for half an hour and motorists are stuck in traffic, you only end up invoking anger. They will say ‘I will cut the lane and get in’.

In the wet leasing tender, we put 450 buses straight in one shot. Let us put them in areas where you want bus lanes so you can get good frequency there.

■ Is there a plan to augment bus ridership, which has fallen from 44 lakh in 2009-10 to 25 lakh now? How will you woo back the commuter who has shifted to Ola and Uber? And can technology be used to improve buses and bus stops?

Yes, these things will come with technology. The biggest benefit of an XYZ technology- driven cab is that you can see it on your phone where the driver is and in how much time he will arrive. I cannot do the same thing with the bus currently.

My first point of competition is to take on the cabbie on predictability. The second point of competition is going to be frequency. I strongly feel BEST can compete with technology-driven cabs, provided we get our frequency and predictability correct. Once that is in place, there is no way they can stand against us. We will demolish and finish them. There is no doubt in my mind.

■ Most of the buses are in a bad shape. Are there any plans to improve this?

We are saying the whole fleet should be replaced.

■ Should private vehicles be taxed to enter busy business districts of the city?

Personally, I think there should be a congestion tax. That is my personal opinion. However, you must also have an alternative. You cannot tax and say I will not even provide a bus. You must have public transport to compensate and there must be parking space. So, we need to do these two things simultaneously.

█ The BMC budget is about Rs 35,000 crore a year. If at all there is a deficit of Rs 800 crore, in a budget of 35,000 crore, can’t you use this money which is from the people, for the benefit of the people? –Shashank Rao, BEST Union Leader

█ My main concern is the pollution issue. If BEST comes back into the limelight as the best service in India, our grandchildren will have a far better chance of not falling sick –Kiran Nagarkar, author

█ If you look at other cities around the world, London has a subsidy [for its bus service], Singapore has a subsidy and Hong Kong has a subsidy –Shirish Patel, civil engineer

█ The question is what has the BMC done in the past 20 or 25 years to curb the use of private transport? That is why we are in this situation today –Hussain Indorewala, professor

█ The point is to improve the quality of life of the citizen –Sudhir Badami, civil engineer

█ Space management is the most important thing for cars and buses. There must be bus priority –Ashok Datar, transportation expert

█ Public vs private is a discussion that needs to happen. People are brainwashed into thinking that having a private company is always good. But if a private company can do it, why can’t a public corporation?. –Sandhya Gokhale, Forum Against Oppression of Women

█ I am clear on one thing: BMC must give subsidy to the BEST – P S Pasricha, former DGP

█ Railway, Metro, Bus, Mono-rail, Ferries – there are no strategic plans about where these services connect. BMC should know from where people need to travel, and where they need buses to go –Urmi Kenia, urban planer, UDRI

█ For a city of 10 million, the budget allocation for BEST is too little –Ajit Ranade, economist

█ Why can’t they tell us where each bus is and when it will arrive? We asked for the data but BEST said they would not give the data because people will start fighting with them –Chetan Temkar, transportation expert

█ We are hearing all the right things from the BMC Commissioner but what about implementation? –Sucheta Dalal, editor, Moneylife

█ BEST has to survive not for the good of BEST, but for the long-term benefit of Mumbai –Binoy Mascarenhas, head, Integrated Urban Transport, WRI

█ Everything is not in the hands of BEST. It cannot increase the speed of buses because of the cars. This is in the hands of traffic police –AV Shenoy, transportation expert

█ It is shocking that there is no bus service from the airport to the city. Every other big city in the world has a public transport option –Vidyadhar Date, author

BEST bet: Key takeaways for city managers

1 Funds, subsidy a must for ‘essential service’ BEST

Like local trains, BEST provides an essential service to tens of thousands of Mumbaikars and therefore the BMC cannot pick and choose when and how it wants to financially support it. The first step to end doubts about BEST’s status is to formally declare it an essential service. “When BEST workers protest, you threaten action under the Essential Services Maintenance Act, but when it comes to providing funds, you don’t consider BEST that important,” Shashank Rao, who heads BEST workers’ union said at the round table. Professor Hussain Indorewala said Ajoy Mehta had a package of reforms that he wanted to impose on BEST. “His line appears to be that cut costs and losses and improve efficiency, then I will give you subsidy. That’s not right,” he said.

2 The bottom line: Don’t tie BEST to profit-loss

BEST is supposed to be an affordable and convenient bus service, not an enterprise whose sole aim is profit. It’s wrong to expect that BEST should be financially independent. Yes, it should improve its finances, but that cannot be the sole focus. “Right now, the conversation about BEST has become all about money. No one in the BMC is talking about how BEST lost so much ground,” said transportation expert AV Shenoy.

3 Priority lanes for buses

One reason why fewer people are relying on buses is that they now take more time to complete even short trips because of traffic snarl-ups, caused primarily by private cars and cabs. To encourage more people to use public transport, BEST should be given special lanes. “Thousands of crores are being spent on roads. Car owners are not paying for it,” said transportation expert Ashok Datar. “There should be priority lanes for buses.” Former top cop PS Pasricha shared a similar view. “We have built the Sea Link and the Freeway, but has BEST benefited from it? Good cities are known for the number of people they move in an hour, not the number of cars,” he said.

4 Expand reach

Experts at the round table were not in favour of dropping any route. Mumbai, they said, needs more bus routes, buses and stops. “Anyone should be able to walk to a bus station anywhere in the city,” Indorewala said. Sandhya Gokhale, from Forum Against Oppression of Women, said the BMC was forgetting about a large section of Mumbai’s population that cannot pay for an auto or taxi. “Workers from the unorganised sector depend completely on public transport,” she said. College student Shivani Amin said: “I have seen daily wagers wait for an hour for a bus. They have no voice, they are unable to complain. We need to think about them before downscaling BEST. Her college mate Gayatri said many students also depended on BEST.

5 Free BEST rides

One way to get more people to use buses and give up cars is to make BEST trips free or introduce very cheap all-day passes. “You may lose ticket revenue, but you will gain in terms of cleaner air, less congestion and a lower fuel bill,” Rao said.

6 More experts on BEST panel

Positions at BEST should not be a “rehabilitation” stint for babus or appointees and there should be more experts on its panel. Author Vidhyadhar Date said at the political level, there had been a terrible decline in understanding of public transport and some measures were needed to change this. Datar said: “Members on the BEST committee should be from fields such as finance, transport and engineering, among others.”

Ajoy Mehta wants BEST to build a more efficient operation instead of surviving on BMC dole. Experts say the corporation is not doing any favours and it is the civic body’s duty to subsidise the vital public service, the way it is done across the world.

At the heart of the debate about the future of the BEST bus service in Mumbai is the subsidy that it requires from the BMC to not just survive but to thrive. Currently, the BMC provides Rs 100 crore a year for BEST, but the service is losing Rs 900 to Rs 1000 crore a year, so the situation is unsustainable.

From the point of view of those involved in the organisation, as well as civil society experts, public transport services in major metropolitan cities across the world must be subsidised because they are an essential and vital service, and therefore cannot be profit-making. From the BMC’s point of view, it wants the BEST to restructure, rationalise and consider private sector interventions to improve efficiency before it will provide additional funds. The issue, therefore, is to determine the appropriate subsidy to be paid.



“What is the ideal subsidy level that we should arrive at and we should freeze?” BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta said at the round table organised by Mumbai Mirror to debate the future of BEST on May 16. “The subsidy has to be given. Why subsidise BEST is not the debate. The debate is how much to subsidise it.

This in turn will depend on the purpose of BEST. If it is meant to provide transportation to every nook and cranny of the city, and at a price that even the poorest can afford, then the subsidy will need to be higher. If it is meant only to supplement existing transportation systems — the metro, railways, share-taxis and autos — then the cost of running the service will drop, and so will the subsidy required.

As far the participants of the conference were concerned, it is the first vision for BEST that should prevail. “BEST has to be affordable and accessible to all. It is a public service, it is an essential service,” Hussain Indorewala, a professor at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, said. “There has to be a subsidy to provide for it.”

Current crisis

The financials of BEST do not make for pretty reading. In fact, it is so hard up for cash that over the past couple of months, it has had to borrow money just to pay the salaries of its employees. Mehta laid out the scale of the problem.

“The accumulated deficit of BEST has touched Rs 1,759 crore. The cash flow gap — outstanding dues, things that need to be paid off by the corporation — is Rs 2,344 crore. That brings us to Rs 4,000 crore, which is there as a loss on the balance sheet (sic),” Mehta said. “Apart from that, every month we have a direct revenue gap… Every month you need to pay Rs 150 crore to Rs 170 crore just to cover the gap.”



Ticket sales, which are down, and advertisements are not generating enough cash, complicating the matters. “That income is not even covering salaries or administrative costs. In 2016-17, income from ticket sales was Rs 1,295 crore and whereas the salary (component) and administrative costs amounted to Rs 1,567 crore. We face this gap of nearly Rs 300 crore annually just on this,” Mehta said. “The total expenditure is Rs 2,285 crore and each year, BEST now makes a loss of Rs 992 crore to Rs 1,000 crore. We are building up a cost of Rs 1,000 crore year in, year out.”

BEST, he revealed, is struggling to pay salaries and clear dues of vendors. “In 2012-13, the income was Rs 1,398 crore, whereas the salary (outflow) was Rs 1,196 crore. The situation has now reversed: the salary component has exceeded the income we are getting from ticket sales,” he said. “Compared to 2012, dearness allowance has increased by 10,000 points, almost 43 per cent, in May 2018. There is a huge salary load on BEST. There are some horror stories of employees not being paid. Even dues of families of deceased staff members are pending.”

The bus operator is also saddled with a tax bill of Rs 500 crore. “In toto, there is Rs 5,000 crore on the balance sheet that we need to pay off. Assuming the loss levels remain the same, we would have to pay Rs 10,000 crore over the next five years. Rs 10,000 crore against the same level of service,” he said. “That’s why we raised the issue with BEST. Giving money is not the issue. Fair enough, we give you Rs 10,000 crore, but how much will you ask for after five years — Rs 1,000 crore, Rs 500 crore or Rs 200 crore? What is the ideal subsidy level?”

In addition, he said that the BEST had one of the highest bus to staff ratios – over 8 – in the country and that each bus drivers also cover fewer kilometres than before than they did a decade ago, though he said this was partly because of the increase in traffic from private vehicles.

The cross-subsidy blow

The subsidy problem did not exist until the 21st century. The Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) was originally set up as a tramway company in 1873 and it owned a thermal power station to provide power for its trams. In 1905, it started providing electricity to the growing city of Bombay and became the Bombay Electric Supply & Tramways company. It was only in 1926 that it ran its first motorised bus route – from Afghan Church to Crawford market. In 1947 it was bought by the BMC as a going concern and became Bombay Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking – the BEST we know today. Thus electricity and transport were always linked. As the city’s population exploded, the profits from the electricity division were used to pay off the losses from the transport division. As a result, the BEST was not dependent on the BMC.

Read also:
Shardashram Vidyamandir can’t do away with SSC: BMC 

This system continued until the introduction of the Electricity Act in 2003, which allowed the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission to set rates for the BEST. This was challenged in court by the BEST, and thought they won the right to set their own rates, the court ruled they had to declare the cross subsidy, known as the transport deficit loss recovery, or TDLR, on their customers’ bills. Irate electricity consumers then challenged the TDLR in Court. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and the BEST had to stop collecting the surcharge from November 2016. With the stroke of a pen, the BEST had lost a financial lifeline.

Transportation expert AV Shenoy said since was the case now, there was no need to keep the bus and electricity divisions together. “They were merged in 2003, but if the electricity wing is not covering bus operations, they should be separated,” he said. “The electricity wing should be viewed like any power provider and moved out of the BMC.”

The BMC’s approach

For Mehta, efficiency is the key and the subsidy needs to be at a level that is efficient. “Subsidy must subsidise the consumer and must not be a rent-seeking exercise for those who run the operation,” he said. He even suggested that the subsidy be printed on the ticket, so that commuters can put pressure on the BEST to deliver better service.

The other step Mehta wants is for BEST to rationalise routes. Buses that run empty should not run at those times or perhaps fewer buses can run on particular routes. “If you are running a route where only children go and come from school, run at those times,” Mehta said. “Why run an empty bus on those routes because you have a time-table?”

He clarified that this does not mean BEST should abandon routes that are unprofitable. A public service must bear that kind of cost. But routes should be based on merit, he said. He also said salaries must be adjusted to correlate to the reality of BEST’s financial conditions. “We are not here to sermonise, but today when things are bad, you need to cut allowances and things that are not in industry practice and bring down your cost. Nowhere have we said there is to be retrenchment but we will look at new recruitment. A reform must involve everyone’s sacrifice,” he said.

He is said that BEST would have to introduce wet-leasing of buses before the BMC will approve the subsidy. “The private sector can run a bus cheaper than us but we have conditions, Mehta said. Among the conditions are that the bus would be red and would say BEST on its side. The operator would provide the driver, but the conductor would be a BEST employee. There would also be reliability and performance clauses.

Most importantly, the cost of the operation would remain in public hands and not be decided by the private company. “Everything remains in your control. Just let him run it in an efficient manner. Then everyone knows the subsidy is going towards an efficient organisation,” Mehta said.

That’s rich

Mehta’s explanations won little support among experts at the Mirror round table, who said it was a bit rich for one of Asia’s biggest civic bodies to be fussing about subsidising a bus service. “The BMC is sitting on fixed deposits of over Rs 60,000 crore, which earns a huge interest, and the municipal commissioner is complaining about BEST’s deficit of Rs 1,000 crore,” said Shashank Rao, who heads the BEST workers’ union.

Economist and Mirror columnist Ajit Ranade said the BMC’s allocations for BEST, which serves a city of over 10 million, were woefully inadequate. “A subsidy of Rs 100 crore seems to me a very tiny portion, especially when you are trying to promote public transport, which has social benefits in the form of less traffic, less pollution, lower blood pressure, and less noise pollution. It benefits everybody, even those driving cars. So the subsidy should be seen in this light and it is an absolute necessity.” He added that the BMC has over Rs 60,000 in investments, which generates an interest income of Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 crore. “Surely, a corporation which has such large investments and is earing such large internet can find money to subside the BEST,” Ranade said.

Rao asked why the bus service was being singled out when many other municipal departments were also struggling. “You say you don’t want to fund inefficiency and then you make huge allocations for other departments that are not doing well either,” he said. “Take a look at the education department. Municipal schools have reported high dropout rates, yet you are providing them funds without asking any questions on efficiency.”

Rao clarified he was not suggesting that the education department should be deprived of funds; he only wanted the civic body to show some common sense.

Former top cop PS Pasricha also said there cannot be riders for providing cash to BEST but that the bus service should be studied to determine the problems and inefficiencies. “Internally auditing, thirdparty auditing to see if the money is being used properly so there are no leakages. After the study, maybe we can reduce the loss to say Rs 600 crore,” he said.

Sandhya Ghokale, a member of the Forum against Oppression of Women, said that in the course of the debate, the transportation needs of the poor and vulnerable citizens of the city should not be forgotten. “In Bhoiwada Dadar, there are six SRA builders,” she said. Each building has around 310 families. There are hardly any buses going from there to and the buses only go to Elphinstone Road station. A ticket costs Rs 10. But there are share taxis that take you Dadar station for the same cost. And you get it within minutes. Many women also walk to the station because they cannot afford the bus. It is a ridiculous situation.”

She also felt for the employees of BEST, who she said are often the first targets when the axe of cost cutting is wielded. “Bus employees are citizens too. Dearness Allowance is not bonus. It is linked to inflation. We have to be human beings.

For Indorewala, the parameters by which BEST is measured should not be profit and loss but ridership. He suggested five-year targets should be set for increasing ridership and improving the quality of service. BEST should then be evaluated on those parameters and the appropriate subsidy determined.

Indorewala’s approach was echoed by transportation expert Ashok Datar. “We need a more analytic approach,” he said. “It shouldn’t be just a lump sum. There must be incentive for performance in the form of increase of ridership. Then can we reduce the ratio of employees to bus? Can we increase the number of km per bus per day?

He also recommended separate capital and revenue budgets, with the capital budget focused on identifying various measures that would improve the service, such better bus stops, and using technology to track buses and arrival times. “There should be budgets and not just a subsidy. They can do a lot smarter job,” Datar said.

————————————————————————————————————

‘Keep our depots, but give us Rs 5,000 cr’

BEST committee chairman says BMC must fully cover bus operations, losses.

If the civic administration doesn’t want to monetise BEST depots by selling rights to builders, it should fully cover the bus service’s operations and losses, Ashish Chemburkar, who heads the BEST committee, said at the round table.

“Every organisation goes through a difficult phase. Even the BMC faced financial troubles in the past.

BEST has various properties and if you don’t want to develop them (through builders), it is fine. Keep them. But give us Rs 5,000 crore without interest for a period of five years,” he said. “The BMC can track our progress and start seeking interest after five years.”

Chemburkar agrees with most of Ajoy Mehta’s suggestions for turning around BEST, but is upset that the bus operator has been made to beg for funds. He said it was the civic body’s duty to take care of BEST and its two constituencies: passengers and employees. “Around 30 lakh commuters use buses and they are served by our employees, who should be paid their dues. You cannot expect employees to give their best without paying them,” he said.

The BEST committee had accepted 80 per cent of the reforms suggested by Mehta, but the workers’ union moved court. “I have no problem with wet leasing of buses,” he said. He urged the state to chip in, saying it could at least waive taxes. “We pay Rs 500 crore to Rs 600 crore in taxes. Which public transport system is made to pay close to 40 per cent as sales tax on diesel?”

(With inputs from Harsh Vora)

 

NOT BMC, WE ARE KILLING BEST

Last of three-part coverage: Not BMC, we are killing BEST
Photo by Satish Malavade

The spike in private transport since 2001 has made it all but impossible for BEST buses to operate efficiently in the city.

Fully funding BEST, using technology to improve the quality of its service and all the goodwill in the world will achieve little if another fundamental issue is not tackled concurrently: the sky-rocketing use of private transportation in Mumbai.

As everyone who travels on Mumbai’s roads already knows, more cars and two-wheelers on the road create more traffic jams and longer travel times, which make it extremely difficult, if not impossible for BEST buses to stay on schedule. The average speed of BEST buses has dropped roughly 25 per cent to 12 km/h at peak hours over the last decade and in February this year, BEST buses covered only 167 km a day against their target of 200km. Each bus driver logs 47 km a day compared to 60 in 2001 and the average number of daily trips has slumped too, from a high of 62,301 in 2010-11 to 54,093 in 2016-17. In February 2018, only 48,685 trips were made.

You can install a GPS tracker on a bus and display the waiting time at the bus stop, but if a bus is not going to arrive for 30 minutes, commuters that can afford taxis are not going to hang around.

The increase in the number of private vehicles over the last decade and a half is particularly disquieting. According to the Motor Vehicles Department, in 2001, Mumbai had 10.29 lakh private vehicles on its roads. Fast forward to 2017 and the number of vehicles had tripled to 30.7 lakh. In that time, the number of twowheelers had gone up four times, from 4.4. lakh to 17.7 lakh, and the number of cars had gone up three times from 3.1 lakh to 9.1 lakh. Thanks to app-based cabs, the number of taxis has doubled too.

More cars and bikes on the road mean more space is needed for car parking too. In a city with narrow streets, that creates another headache for BEST. “In entire Dharavi I can’t ply,” RJ Singh, Additional General Manager for BEST, said at the round tableorganised by Mirror on the future of BEST. “94 feet road has become 30 feet road with three levels of parking. There is no space left for buses. BEST is helpless. I used to get so much business there. That is the tragedy. Vehicles have gone up. These things are adversely affecting BEST and these factors cannot be discounted.”

The problem isn’t confined to areas where there are slums either. Just last week, Mirror reported on Illegal parking in a narrow lane adjacent to Gol Masjid in Dhobi Talao that caused two BEST buses to get stuck. It took half an hour for the cops to clear the parked cars and get traffic moving again.

The problem has become so acute that it has even drawn the attention of the Bombay High Court. The Times of India reported last month that a bench of Justice Naresh Patiland and Justice Girish Kulkarni said the traffic police should remove cars and other vehicles parked between 8 am and 9 pm “in market areas of south Mumbai, including Crawford Market, Kalbadevi and Bhuleshwar, to decongest them. They suggested that the police try this exercise for 2-3 days”.

Rising incomes and rising aspirations have produced changes in behaviour too. “Everybody wants comfort,” Singh said. “Youngsters want Ola-Uber. There are shareautos and share-taxis. Thousands of people are going in share autos. It is a convenient mode of transport for them. Where is the scope for BEST?”

So without incentivising people to get out of their cars and into buses, increasing ridership will remain a pipe dream. “What are the ways in which we are trying to curb use of private transport?” Hussain Indorewala, a professor at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, said.

There are two answers to that question. The first is to make public transport so convenient and cheap that people prefer it to taking cars. The second is to raise the cost of using private transport. Currently, Mumbai city does not charge for parking on the streets, which has led not only to doubleparking but sometimes even triple-parking on roads, which cause endless traffic snarls.

Bus priority

“Space management is the most important thing for cars and buses,” transportation expert Ashok Datar said. There must be a price for cars and a price for buses. And there must be bus priority. Wherever there is an option, we must use buses.”

Former DG of police, P S Pasricha, cautioned that Mumbai could not just import solutions from other cities because Mumbai has its unique challenges. “We have geographical constraints. Some things that have been successful elsewhere may not work here. We have to work out depot management, rescheduling routes, how to manage space.” By way of example, he pointed out that creating a bus lane on Marine Drive was possible, but at Babulnath, four lanes merge into two and taking one lane away for buses was not practical because it would create a jam in the other lane

However, Datar challenged the notion that cars are a given and that solutions for BEST must avoid inconveniencing those who travel by car. “Why do we have to make sure cars go but say buses may or may not go?” He believes that the movement of buses must be given priority if people are to be weaned away from their cars. He also wants a parking charge that accurately prices the use of space in the island city. That would make car owners think twice about whether it is worth it to take their car out every day. Of course, this would only work if there is a robust public transport option available instead.

Fellow transportation expert A V Shennoy agreed with Datar that BEST must be given priority but argued that BEST had not pushed for this. He also pointed out that BEST cannot increase the speed of its buses on its own but requires the assistance of the traffic police. Keeping cars and taxis from using the lanes and parking in them was something only the police can control.

Ashish Chemburkar, the BEST committee chairperson, said it was important for the police to support BEST but they rarely received that support. He cited the example of a bus lane BEST set-up from CST to Mantralaya. “The problem was taxies were parked in the lane,” he said. “Because our conductors are on the spot and it takes time to notify the traffic police and for them to come, we asked the traffic police commissioner to give us the power to fine them. But nothing happened.”

Bus lanes

On the subject of bus lanes, BMC commissioner Ajoy Mehta was in favour but offered two concerns. The first is that such lanes must be created carefully as they will disrupt traffic. “Still, I have said that even at the cost of some disruption, we must create dedicated bus lanes,” he said. In addition, creating these lanes would have to account for metro construction, which has eaten up road space. “Already one or two lanes are blocked. If you block another, there could be chaos. We need to look at it carefully,” he said.

His second concern was for the frequency of buses. “See what happened in Delhi: bus lanes were created, but there were no buses running on them. People said we are living horribly, using autos and taxis, and now you have put this and buses are not there. You have reduced us to three lanes and made things worse.”

If bus lanes are introduced, he said, there must be a large number of buses using them. “If people see buses zipping past them, they will think, ‘why am I am waiting in traffic?’”

Personally, Mehta said he also favours a congestion tax, “as long as there is public transport to compensate and there must be parking space. So, we need to do these two things simultaneously,” he said.

Managing train stations

Likewise, buses should get priority at train stations. Acting as a feeder service should be an easy win for BEST but here too they were losing out because of shared rickshaws. Binoy Mascarenhas, the head of integrated urban transport at WRI India, said it was ridiculous that at Bandra and Kurla stations, hundreds of shared rickshaws come and go, creating traffic bottle necks. “It is a no-brainer that a bus will handle this demand in a much more efficient manner.” What’s more, he pointed out that the shared rickshaw stand was closer to the station than the bus stand. “The first thing you are hit with is the line that takes you to the shared auto stand. You have to walk to the bus stand. Why can’t you flip that?”

Shashank Rao, the BEST union leader, is also the leader of one of the auto-rickshaw unions, According to him, it is “illegal autos” that are causing the problems at stations and not registered auto-drivers. He argued that he had even reported the nuisance to the traffic police and in one instance had been told by a police officer that nothing could be done because these auto-drivers beat up the cops who try to restore order.

Beating Ola-Uber

Mehta was also confident that BEST could use technology to take on app-based cab operators. “My first point of competition is to take on the cabbie on predictability. The second point of competition is going to be frequency. I strongly feel BEST can compete with technology-driven cabs, provided we get our frequency and predictability correct. Once that is in place, there is no way they can stand against us. We will demolish and finish them. There is no doubt in my mind.”

Singh, the additional GM, said BEST was already in the process of building an app and having GPS tracking, and that these technologies should be rolled out in six to eight months.

However, entrepreneur Chetan Temkar, who creates mobile apps to improve accessibility, was skeptical of BEST’s readiness and willingness to introduce these technologies. He said he had asked for data on the buses timings and routes but was rebuffed on the grounds that making this data public would anger commuters.

Still, the main users of BEST are those who find app-based cabs too expensive. “I can take a cab but others can’t afford it. I see them waiting for hours,’ said Shivani Amin, a psychology student at Ruia College. “There is no medium for them to communicate with the government or officials. We can be really inconsiderate.”

Her friend and fellow Ruia student, Gayatri Godbole, said she preferred taking the bus to college over taxis “because it is affordable for me. I am a student. I don’t earn yet. I don’t want to pay Rs 50 to go school and another Rs 50 back.” What bothers her was the poor frequency of buses on her route, and how crowded they were as a result. “I am afraid to get on a crowded bus. It comes with its own drawbacks,” she said.

Pollution

Perhaps the most important benefit of increased ridership for BEST would be the decrease in air pollution. This is the primary concern for author, Kiran Nagarkar, who feels that this issue is not being taken seriously enough. “What are you rationalising in terms of health? Bull! The children are in severe danger but I don’t know how they are addressing it all,” he said.

Urmi Kenia, a city planner from the Urban Research and Design Institute, argued that the “objective should be to reduce pollution and to do that public transport has to take priority over private,” she said. Or you charge private transport high rates and subsidise public transport.”

She believes more people would use buses if there was better co-ordination between the different modes of transport in the city and pointed out the new Development Plan passed by the BMC has no mention of traffic corridors or how trains, buses, ferries and the metro connect. “Five different authorities working in the transport sector in the city and they don’t talk to each other,” she said.

Not anti-car

All those at the conference made it clear they are not anti-car or against private transport. There is space for cars, taxis, rickshaws and buses on Mumbai’s roads. But for that space to be used properly and effectively, the bus system has to come first, especially since putting it first would bring a range of societal benefits that would benefit those who don’t use the BEST as well.

“People of Mumbai are entitled to a world-class transport service,” Rao said. If you spend Rs 5,000 crore on this service, you are going to get cleaner air, you are going to reduce congestion, have a better lifestyle, better productivity, and a longer life.


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MUMBAIKARS RESPOND

Subsidy alone won’t help
THE PROBLEMS of BEST cannot be resolved just by providing it some sort of relief. Be it subsidies, grants or redevelopment of surplus land. One has to remember that most commuters are ready to pay if the services are in time. There has to be a multi-pronged approach for routes which are obstructed or congested due to construction activities such as Metro project. The desired number of trips cannot be undertaken on such routes, and there is bound to be a shortfall resulting in losses. This can be compensated by hiring buses to schools falling on such routes. Mumbai remains the only metro city in the country where we don’t have a dedicated AC transport. BEST must take initiatives to start services from airport to Thane/Navi Mumbai/Colaba at a fixed fare of Rs 200 at dedicated hours. To begin with, it can launch a service between 11 pm and 6 am from international terminus. Commercial utilisation of surplus space in depots may be prioritised for BMC and other government departments, which are short of space and/or are functioning from rented premises.
– Sidhartha Srivastava

City needs best, let’s help it survive
I APPRECIATE Mumbai Mirror’s campaign to save BEST by inviting experts and stakeholders to a round- table discussion to find ways and means to make the troubled transport service viable and productive. BMC, which is one of the richest municipal corporations in Asia, is capable of running BEST with subsidy. BEST is a public utility and whether it makes profit or not is secondary. It is an essential public transport service in Mumbai, covering almost every corner of the vast city and even beyond. A large number of people are dependent on its services, which are affordable and efficient. The city needs BEST and we must help it come out of the mess. Now, it’s up to Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta to decide the fate of this premier bus service.
– Iqbal Gilani

Don’t overlook suburbs, rein in autos
IT WAS encouraging to hear BMC Commissioner Ajay Mehta promising a vibrant BEST. However, the scope of his vision seems to be limited to South Mumbai and the ‘business districts’. He wants to put AC buses on dedicated routes, but only in ‘business districts’. As if, these areas of Mumbai form a separate district altogether. Also, he thinks that the main competition to BEST buses comes from Ola and Uber. Maybe true of South Mumbai, but in the suburbs, it is the ‘share auto’. Autos are not even allowed into South Mumbai; but the suburban traffic is clogged with cars and autos. There seems to be no limit on the number of autos. ‘Share autos’ are now really undercutting the BEST buses by parking in front of bus stands and aggressively soliciting passengers. If you request them to park elsewhere, they become belligerent.
Most of the population of Mumbai is surely in the suburbs. Unless the BMC. and BEST turn their gaze here, the suburbs are sure to be exploited once again. Not only the BMC commissioner, but also the auto-rickshaw unions need to address these issues to ensure a better life for the majority of Mumbaikars.
– Ammu Abraham

Let builders develop bus depots
I FAIL TO understand how such educated officials cannot take quick decisions in bringing the sinking company out of the woods. They don’t want to give up land and control. Give each depot to a developer to build and manage, for a price, multi-storey public parking blocks and a floor for hawkers. The ground remains as bus depot. This gives revenue to BEST, relieves parking woes and eases traffic. Also, hawker discord can be resolved and quick shopping to the public adds convenience and relieves footpath space for walking. It will decrease jaywalking.
–M Vaz

Run it like a private entity with social cause
IF LOCAL train is a lifeline for an average Mumbaikar, BEST is second life for many. Worldwide, bus or train travel is subsidised not because people must use it but to dissuade them from using their own cars – a move that helps in reducing both traffic congestion and pollution.
BEST, which has lost its sheen because of mismanagement, was never in dearth of customers. BEST must ask itself a question – if private operators can make it run successfully why can’t it? BEST must be run like a private entity with a social cause. It should rather increase double decker buses instead of phasing them out. BEST has a large land pool, which may be utilised for transport parks or hubs for commercial use. With the raging debate on restructuring BEST operations, I must thank Mumbai Mirror which has single-handedly highlighted the need to revamp this public transport.
–Ashok Goswami

Turn it into a distinct entity
WHAT BEST needs is professional management. In the present setup, BEST is being managed like a department of an electricity company. So first thing to be done is separate the transport wing from the electricity company and convert it into a distinct entity, preferably a public limited company, wholly owned by the state government, BMC and MMRDA. This should have been done after the electricity wing was stopped from subsidising the transport wing.
The company should have a proper setup to market the various services to the public, what BEST lacks today is marketing. The days of monopoly may be over, but BEST’s work culture is still dominated by it.
–Rajagopal Saketharam

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