MUMBAI: Tuesday will be the eighth day that Mumbai's BEST (Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply & Transport) buses are off the road. This is affecting almost 28 lakh daily commuters in Mumbai and adjoining cities like Thane, Mira Bhayandar and Navi Mumbai. This time, the BEST workers' strike has succeeded in garnering sympathy from common Mumbaikars. A citizen forum has been launched to save the BEST services from privatisation. Almost 33,000 workers of the transport wing and 54% out of 8,000 workers from the electricity wing are on strike. This is the longest strike in the history of BEST, after the three-day strike in 1997.
Nobody had imagined that the participation of BEST unions in the nation-wide general strike on January 8-9 could be the trigger for the longest battle in its history. As of January 15, the strike is on, and there is no sign of it being called off. BEST Sanyukta Kamgar Kruti Samiti (BSKKS) is determined to continue the strike. Shashank Rao, leader of this Samiti, has declared that the committee will take decision on calling off the strike after Maharashtra state government's three-member committee submits its report to the Bombay High Court. The fate of BEST services’ current paralysis will be decided only after that.
BEST is prime bus service of India's financial capital Mumbai – which has a population of one crore 41 lakh. According to its annual report, around 27 lakh commuters travelled daily by BEST in 2016-17. BEST buses also ferried commuters to and from three adjoining cities of Mumbai. There are around 3,337 bus routes with 121 double decker bus routes. There are 33,000 workers including drivers, conductors, office staff, mechanics and others.
What the workers are demanding
BEST workers are at loggerheads with the administration over the demands of salary, bonus and houses. One of the key demands has been: merger with Brihanmumbai Municipal Council (BMC).
BEST's junior grade staff accounts to 14,000 employees. They are getting salary less than Rs 15,000/month which is less than the salary of the grade four employees of the BMC. The union is demanding a minimum salary of Rs 22,000 so that it can be on par with the grade four workers of the BMC. It is estimated to cost around Rs 540 crore extra annually to BEST.
Another demand is regarding Diwali bonus, which is pending with the administration. The third major demand is regarding the government quarters provided to the BEST workers.
The most important demand of BSKKS is of BEST’s merger with the BMC, as is the norm in other major cities in Maharashtra. Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal Ltd (PMPML) comes under Pune Municipal Corporation, Thane Municipal Transport (TMT) comes under Thane Municipal Corporation and so on.
BMC is the richest civic body in the country. If the transport service of the city directly comes under BMC, it will be beneficial for the workers as well as the city administration, they feel. Workers have been demanding this for quite some time. But BEST administration has not been in favour of this merger.
Allegations of corruption
BMC has been under Shiv Sena’s control for the past 25 years, while the governing body of the BEST is elected through BMC corporators. So, BEST too is under Sena rule for the last 23 years now. The budget allocation for BMC in 2017-18 was Rs 27,000 crore. Both the bodies are also directly under the state. However, there is a tussle between Shiv Sena and the state government. Earlier, the tussle was with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party government, now it is with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
BEST owns significant portions of land via its depot across Mumbai. There have been various allegations of use of this land for commercial purpose. As of now, Shiv Sena controls the BEST body as well as BMC. But if BEST comes under BMC, then the use of land for commercial purpose will have many legal restrictions.
"Everyone knows how the BEST land is being used for commercial purposes and the intentions of land-grabbing behind of privatisation of BEST. The main battle is against the weakening of the otherwise ‘best’ city transport service of India," alleged Nationalist Congress Party's spokesperson Nawab Malik. Similar allegations have been levelled by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Congress as well as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Mumbai.
"This is sinister plot to make BEST a loss-making body. So that privatisation of bus service as well as use of prime plots owned by BEST could be done under the name of losses. Citizens of Mumbai should unite against this, and fight this plot," appealed Vidyadhar Date, one of the founders of the citizen forum Aamchi Mumbai Aaamchi BEST.
The citizen’s forum
Several citizens of Mumbai have come together to launch the forum Aamchi Mumbai, Aamchi BEST (Our Mumbai, Our BEST), which is just a forum. Hussain Indorewala and Vidyadhar Date are among others who lead meetings of like-minded Mumbaikars and have submitted a plan to revamp the city's bus service.
The forum aims to help BEST workers by garnering support of the common people for their struggle. "You can see the difference in public reaction. Earlier, people used to speak against the unions for paralysing the city. But this time, people are aware of the low wages of the workers, and other genuine problems. Thanks to a forum like this, the state can't suppress the voice of the workers," said senior journalist and a resident of Mumbai, Jatin Desai.
There is a lesson from the history behind the inception of this forum. In 1983, Mumbai's (then Bombay's) mill workers had called for a strike. It was initially successful, but the state government succeeded in breaking it, and later ignored the demands of workers. This led to jobs of two and half lakh workers of the city being axed. The mills of Mumbai were later sold to the builders who raised high-rise buildings, while workers were rendered jobless.
"Mumbaikars need BEST. They should get to avail this service in subsided rates. It is the moral responsibility of the civic body. So, to save it from the land-grabbers, Mumbaikars will have to unite," Date told Newsclick.
According to the plan submitted by the forum, the BEST administration must stop shutting routes, reducing fleet and staff. Also, it should stop fare hikes and set minimum fare to Rs 4 instead of Rs 8, as it is currently. It should buy more buses, and should seek adequate funds for expansion of the services. BMC chief should facilitate immediate merger of the BEST with the BMC. "All over the world, be it in New York or London, city buses exhibit the pride of that city. Then why not Mumbai? We are not against professionalism. But you give better service, that will be more important to the people. They will start using your service," said Date.
The Bombay High Court on Monday asked state government-appointed committee to discuss the demands of the workers on Tuesday. It will have to submit the report to the court in Tuesday itself. Shashank Rao, leader of union has already made it clear that if the report is positive on the demands of employees, then BSKKS would call off the strike.