All you need to know about the ongoing debates on Mumbai’s BEST buses

By Elton Gomes

Public transport in Mumbai is currently in a disastrous state. Although the local railways are considered to be reliable, alighting a train during peak hours is likened to achieving an insurmountable feat. Taxis and auto rickshaws are as good as non-existent, due to non-compliance to travel “short distances.” Mumbaikars are, more often than not, left with no choice but to take the bus.

For quite some time now, a certain disquiet has prevailed amongst the civic body running these public buses. The Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) is an independent body under the Municipal Corporation, and operates one of India’s largest fleet of buses.

Over the past few years, the BEST has been plagued by a host of problems. In 2016, the civic body decided to do away with 52 routes, leaving commuters stranded and agitated. In the past, BEST buses have been known to ply around the city with broken seats. Most importantly, the BEST recently decided to hike its fares, thereby cancelling out the idea of subsidised public transport.

Concerned with this sorry state of affairs, Mumbaikars raised their voices to stop Bombay’s national icon from further decay. Prominent author, Kiran Nagarkar, sparked the debate on saving the BEST buses by writing a letter to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Chief Ajoy Mehta. Following the steps of Nagarkar, some of Mumbai’s residents also raised critical questions with the BMC Chief.

A common issue raised by all the letters to Mehta was—why isn’t the Mumbai Municipality doing anything to remedy the state of the BEST?

Here’s what happened

Prior to Nagarkar sparking a debate on the BEST, in 2017, the Hindu reported that Mumbai’s BEST was in deep financial crisis. The newspaper reported that the BEST did not have money to pay its employees’ salaries, and had taken loans to do so. The report also claimed that the civic body was planning to cancel as many as 150 routes. The Hindu’s report raised a critical point, in that the BMC “seems to think its aid (to bail the BEST out of its current condition) is discretionary rather than its duty.” Nagarkar’s letter magnified this critical point, and hoped to spur the BMC into some action.

In the letter, Nagarkar wrote that the Mumbai Municipality declared the BEST as a “burden” due to the city’s swelling population. To ease this burden, “draconian measures” were taken, such as cancellation of routes, and lowering the number of buses on roads.

“You declared that like many a municipality in major metropolises in the world, the Mumbai municipality too would refuse to subsidise public transport,” Nagarkar wrote. The renowned author further implied that due to Mehta’s unfavourable policies, the BEST was already staring at its own demise.

In his reply, Mehta wrote that the BEST underwent some serious losses. “The depreciation incurred in the BEST books of accounts shows an amount of Rs 1809 crore, however, there is no matching cash to back up this amount, which is an extremely serious deviation as per Indian accounting practices.”

Mehta was of the opinion that “even if MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) injects Rs 10,000 crore in the next five years, there would still be no improvement in the BEST transport services.”

Meanwhile, Mumbai-based economist and political analyst, Ajit Ranade, decided to weigh-in on the debate. A pragmatic Ranade stated, “BEST’s recovery is an impossible task due to shrinking or stagnant road space.” He went on to say that given the congestion on Mumbai’s roads, even if BEST buses were free, they would find no takers. As Mumbai is synonymous with racing against the clock, Ranade said, that travelling via BEST buses takes “too much time or is unpredictable, so you cannot plan your travel and work.”

Transport analyst Ashok Datar, and urban designer Trupti Vaitla, also wrote to the BMC Chief, and stated that Mumbai will benefit if “high speed, high frequency bus services” are provided. Datar and Vaitla referred to a pilot bus land that they ran in the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC).

They claimed, “If we run such a lane on Western Express Highway, we are sure the time in the evening rush hours will go down between Bandra and Borivali from more than two hours to an hour or so.” It should be noted that the BKC is a potentially secluded space for office buildings, and has little to no residential buildings.

Why you should care

Although a comprehensive debate over BEST buses has taken root, but, it is uncertain if this alone will be enough for the BMC to act. More people are weighing in on the debate, and assessing viable options for the civic body.

Independent investments professional, Manish Shah, raised the issue of whether privatisation may help the distressed civic body. However, does the BEST need to be privatised when a municipality exists?

In terms of subsidising transport, Nagarkar said that BEST was subsidised by its electricity department. However, “the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission (MERC) abruptly terminated this cross-subsidising arrangement.” The MERC comes under the jurisdiction of the Maharashtra government. Nagarkar cites Japan’s and Singapore’s examples and asks “who but the Mumbai Municipality should be subsidising this incredibly crucial service?”

A majority of Mumbaikars travel by bus for its subsidised rates. If the Mumbai Municipality is disinterested in subsidising BEST buses, an effective alternative will soon have to be provided. Else, there might come a time when the red buses might just disappear from Mumbai’s roads.



Ajoy MehtaBESTIndiaKiran NagarkarMumbai