Mumbai has been the worst-affected city in India in the battle against Covid-19. Front-line workers like health workers, sanitation workers and police are getting infected by the novel coronavirus in large numbers, as have workers with the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) system. Information from various sources, including officers with the BEST administration, and allegations by employees unions shows utmost negligence on the part of BEST administration.
According to Shashank Rao, convenor of the BEST Workers' Joint Action Committee, who also leads the biggest union – the BEST Employees Union, the total number of affected workers in city are more than 1,700. Rao alleged that as of August 13, a total of 115 BEST employees have died due to COVID-19. However, the BEST administration has a different version.
According to BEST's chief medical officer, Dr. Anil Kumar Singhal, there have been only 27 deaths so far. “I am not denying the number being claimed by unions. Let them come up with documents. We require two documents. The first is a death certificate with the mention of COVID-19 (as a cause of death), the second one is a positive COVID-19 report from any lab approved by the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research). We just scrutinise the documents and clear the claims. As of now 27 such claims have been cleared. I appeal to unions and family members of employees to come and submit these documents," said Dr. Singhal.
The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (popularly known as BMC) stipulated these norms in order to clear claims of deaths of its employees. BEST has been following these norms. The BMC also announced a compensation of Rs 50 lakhs to the deceased’s family and a job to one family member in the BMC (or in BEST in the appropriate case). According to Dr. Singhal, jobs have been immediately provided to 27 family members of deceased employees.
The joint action committee has launched online campaign to raise the issues of BEST employees, with four demands.
The BEST administration should set aside the COVID-19 hospital in its Wadala depot for its employees. There are special hospitals for the police.
The BEST administration is taking action against employees who could not come to work during the lockdown period. The committee has demanded that this be stopped and that any prior action be revoked.
The union has demanded the immediate declaration of a list of all BEST employees who have lost their lives due to COVID-19. It has alleged that the administration is withholding names.
The BEST administration is cutting salaries of employees who could not come in to work during the lockdown. This, despite the appeal by the Centre and state governments to not do so. The committee has demanded for a stop to this and for repayment of salaries to those who have not been paid in full in the last three months.
The petition has garnered the support of the people, with over three thousand signatures as of now. The voluntary forum, ‘Aamchi Mumbai, Aamchi BEST’ (Our Mumbai, Our BEST), has publicly supported the cause. Vidyadhar Date, the head of the forum which campaigns for the betterment of BEST, said it sympathises with the employees. “They were not given proper equipment and came in contact with hundreds of people every day. The BEST administration should have been more sensitive in dealing with this,” said Date.
NewsClick spoke to a few BEST employees – primarily drivers and conductors – who have been on the road during the lockdown. However, they, and union leaders, have requested to not be quoted due to fear of disciplinary action by the administration.
BEST has a total of about 34,000 employees in the transport section. It operates on more than 2,000 within Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai and Mira Bhayandar. The pandemic has also BEST financially. However, its employees have been working to keep the city on the move over the past three months, despite the negligence of the administration.