All the BEST for much needed reforms

Updated: May 20, 2019, 09:03 IST | Dharmendra Jore

BMC's monthly dole to its transport undertaking is good news for the staffers, but what is needed is an effort to attract the 'lost' commuters

All the BEST for much needed reforms

Dharmendra JoreThe new Municipal Chief, Praveen Pardeshi, has come to the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) Undertaking of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, (BMC), as a harbinger of hope for the public transport wing's workers. But it remains to be seen if the officer proves to be of any help to the commuters who are slowly losing hope in BEST.

The senior bureaucrat showed a paradigm shift from his predecessor Ajoy Mehta's resolve to not pamper BMC's ill-managed and loss-making entity. Pardeshi has allowed the merger of BMC and BEST budgets, and till the merger takes place next year, BEST will get a monthly grant of R100 crore to run it.

The development can be understood in two ways. Firstly, Pardeshi, whose proximity to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is undisputed, is out to enhance the bonhomie between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena, frenemies in the BMC. The nine-day BEST workers' strike five months ago had failed the Sena because BJP wasn't willing to rescue it for political reasons.

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But the patch-up between the bickering ruling partners ahead of the Lok Sabha elections has changed the equation. Secondly, BJP cannot afford to lose its urban base in Mumbai's 36 Assembly seats, even if the assistance means giving some political leverage to Sena, which is with BJP in October's state polls.

Reforms or dole?
Mehta, now the state's chief secretary, wanted reforms implemented to help BEST workers save their jobs. An annoyed Mehta had once said he didn't want BEST workers to face the Mumbai mill workers' fate. He was all for running the show but not without having assurance of a proactive approach from the workforce. BEST is headed by a mid-level IAS officer (general manager) and the rest of its hierarchy is built from within the Undertaking's workforce.

Travelling on BEST buses gives a first-hand experience of the staffers who deal with the commuters and the machine (bus) on a daily basis. This writer, who has been relying on BEST for 20 years, has rarely seen a driver move the engine in the first gear and press a clutch paddle fully, to move a stationary bus. Imagine the stress, wear and tear an expensive CNG-powered engine would go through due to this and also increased fuel consumption.

Complex structure
BEST works in two verticals: as a profit-making electricity distributor and a loss-making public transporter. Reforms are pertinent if BEST has to meet the innumerable challenges the highly competitive and manipulative public transport sector throws every hour. The good news is that the government and parent organisation BMC are willing to help BEST this time around.

When bus operations started losing money, the power business began collecting a surcharge called 'transport division loss revenue' (TDLR) for four years from the 10 lakh electricity consumers. The decision was challenged in the courts because it exclusively affected the island city consumers whereas consumers from the suburbs, who also used transport service, were spared. The Supreme Court scrapped the illogical decision three years ago, after which BEST had to refund the money collected to consumers. This added to the accumulated losses. Then, the electricity business came under threat from its competition when the regulator allowed others to supply power to domestic consumers in the BEST license area. Gradually, the power business recovered. Currently, BEST supplies the most affordable power in the state.

Road ahead
For BEST, the challenges should mount further in the future because of app-based taxis, three-wheelers, two-wheelers, private cars and upcoming Metro network. Trade unions and opposition parties allege that the government is mulling privatisation of BEST. When unreasonable demands are not met and questions posed, the unions find hundreds of excuses, threaten strikes and hold the city to ransom. With the new decision, the union that led this year's strike should be seen raising its popularity. The Sena-affiliated workers may shift their loyalty to the emerging neta. The union leader may again get the principal ruling party's ticket to contest the Assembly polls.

An enormous jump in the number of registered app-based vehicles in the city proves the massive migration of commuters. Kaali-peelis have reduced their numbers owing to the spurt in the plush four-wheelers, but the influential unions of three-wheelers and share taxis are alleged to have manipulated BEST's bus route management to their benefit. This nexus needs to be probed and acted upon. The illegal collaboration is eating into BEST's business. The Undertaking has ignored its own people's (including political leaders) involvement in encouraging the manipulation. Will the monthly dole and merger of its budget by next year help attract the lost commuters?
We have serious doubts.

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Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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