City drivers holding us to ransom

Published: Feb 02, 2019, 11:11 IST | Lindsay Pereira

Public transport is an essential component if a city has to function normally, but no one seems to have told the government that

City drivers holding us to ransom
During the latest strike, BEST management reportedly said that the only way demands could be met would be with a hike in fares by 50%, admitting that no government would accept that solution in an election year. Pic/ Ashish Raje

Lindsay Pereira

I don’t travel by bus anymore. I stopped around two years ago, after almost falling off one on a busy street and deciding it wasn’t worth the trouble. It got to a point where approaching a crowded bus stop alone was enough to stress me out, which is why I decided to give it up.

My mother still takes them though, because she belongs to a determined group of people who consider rickshaws and cabs a waste of money.

She had to swallow her pride earlier this month and opt for rickshaws because buses stayed off the street for a lot longer than she assumed they would. A week after the strike began, she had no choice but to use whatever option she could find, because even something as simple as travelling to the railway station for her weekly groceries was impossible.

Her neighbours had to do the same, all men and women of varying age groups and economic backgrounds, forced to try and make their way from one corner of the city to another by paying exorbitant amounts to people who have no conscience at times like these.

I understand that drivers need to strike. They have rights and striking is the only tool at their disposal. I empathise with their plight and appreciate the power of unions for how they can bring about genuine change when struggling under unresponsive powers. What I don’t understand is how successive governments fail to recognise that our city is crippled when public transport fails. It’s as if they deliberately fail to see how this repeatedly brings Bombay to a standstill.

Private cabs went on strike a month ago for an extended period of time, causing all kinds of problems for millions who rely on them because our public transport is so abysmal.

What striking bus drivers do, however, is harm those who have very little to begin with, making it impossible for people to even get to work and earn what they currently do. It is an inhuman exercise that solves nothing. According to reports on how the 32,000 workers themselves were coping, some mentioned sleeping on footpaths, staying away from their families and bathing in public bathrooms. How did this help their cause anyway? If 30 lakh passengers were being held to ransom for the demands of a few thousand, why wasn’t more being done to address the unfairness of these acts to both parties concerned? In 2016, BEST buses went on a 16- hour strike because employee salaries were not being paid on time. In 2017, nearly 36,000 workers stayed off duty affecting 3,800 buses on Raksha Bandhan, because of salaries again. It boggles the mind that governments refuse to or are unable to learn from mistakes that end up costing taxpayers alone.

During the latest strike, BEST management reportedly said that the only way demands could be met would be with a hike in fares by 50%, admitting that no government would accept that solution in an election year.

This points to a serious disconnect between what the government thinks residents want, and what the reality is. It’s also sad that decisions that can genuinely bring about change in what is a transport system struggling to cope, are repeatedly killed off for political brownie points. Experts have been crying themselves hoarse about how things need to change, and how they can be, but none of these solutions ever see the light of day because our politicians believe voters will punish them.

Even a cursory look at any means of transport will reveal a desperate need for improvement. Buses break down routinely, while expensive imported air- conditioned vehicles appear and disappear at the whim of the BEST. While drivers struggle to stay sane in traffic, conductors risk life and limb by simply making their way from one crowded corner of a bus to the other. As for commuters, the list of things going wrong on a daily basis is long and well- documented, including everything from bus stops with missing shelters to streets that are dug up for months without explanation.

Where and how will this ever end? The older I get, the more I pity fellow residents who have no option but to take a bus to work. This isn’t how anyone should be forced to commute, and certainly not in a city that calls itself the country’s financial capital.

We are obsessed with Smart Cities and fancy bullet trains, but maybe we should start with something small, like a BEST bus first.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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