Mumbai: Concerned public transport citizens come together to save city's BEST
Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST!, a group of public transport-loving citizens is pulling out all stops to ensure the BEST keeps running for long
In late 2017, when the city learnt that its once-efficient Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport (BEST) Undertaking was sitting on losses to the tune of Rs 880 crore, there was widespread shock and concern.
The proposed wet leasing of buses (form of agreement that provides multiple services to the individual leasing the property), cutting of student passes and increasing fares only sounded like death knell to many. At this point, a group of Mumbaikars, which includes Vidyadhar Date, former scribe with a broadsheet, and architect Hussain Indorewala, decided it was time they mobilised public support to avert the possibility of privatisation of buses. And, thus, was born Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST! (AMAB), an informal group of citizens that has set out to save a sinking institution.
A little over a year old, AMAB now has close to 25 core members and several other floating participants, who usually meet at Dadar's Shramik Seva Mandal for meetings every month. Here, ideas for revival of buses are mooted, activities chalked out and experiences shared.
"As a journalist, I used to cover transport extensively," says Date. "In fact, you can say it was one of the subjects I was obsessed with. So, when we learnt of the shambles the BEST was in, I was compelled to reach out to people in my circle who could put together a people's vision for the BEST." Date has also authored Traffic in the Era of Climate Change: Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority. In the book, he has critiqued the city's focus on autonomous vehicles and car-centric policies. He believes that public transport is crucial in sustaining local economies.
"In today's world, where every other country is encouraging public transport, we seem to be neglecting it. Luxembourg, for instance, which suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion in the world, is set to become the first country to make all of its public transport free. This is the kind of attitude we need to adopt." According to Sandhya Gokhale, of Forum Against Oppression of Women, who is also part of the campaign, only 2 per cent of road space is occupied by BEST buses.
"Basically, the BEST doesn't get priority. And crying hoarse over it not making profits is ridiculous because BEST is not for making profits. It's because of public transport that people are able to earn their living and reach their workplace. In fact, even at its peak, when it would carry 48,00,000 people, it never made profits. Now, it has come down to 24,00,000."
Last month, when the BEST went on its longest-ever bus strike after talks between labour unions and the management of BEST failed, the citizens' forum supported the strike with a peaceful march. "Initially, we were trying to contextualise the strike. We felt some of the demands like the merger of the budget of the BEST with that of the BMC would be a good way of resolving the issue," says Indorewala. "When eviction notices were issued to workers from their homes, that's when we got more vocal in our support, because it seemed that the administration was threatening the BEST's system itself." The group is clear it's not an NGO and has no political affiliations, which has helped retain its autonomy and freedom. "Even if we have to raise money, it's from our own pockets," says Date.
Like any campaign, AMAB has faced its ebb and flows. "The key is to keep activities going even when not much is happening," says Indorewala. Recently, the group invited filmmaker Saeed Mirza and wife Jennifer to one of their meetings, where the couple discussed how their love affair bloomed on the bus. "When I started working in advertising, my husband Saeed, who was my friend then, would wait in town till 8 pm to avoid the serpentine queues at most bus stops during the evening rush hour. We would hang out at Samovar Café and take the last No. 70 bus from Mereweather Road behind Colaba Causeway," wrote Jennifer, in a blogpost for the forum's portal.
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