Dear Mr Ajoy Mehta,

My name is Kiran Nagarkar. I am a retired denizen of this city. Forgive me for imposing on your time when you are busy looking after the affairs of a municipality whose budget is larger than that of many states in India. But there was something of such critical importance that I felt I had no option but to write to you.

Let me start with a short real-life fable.

There was a boy who happened to be seriously ill from early childhood. His mother or father had to take him to the family physician thrice a day. The first visit in the morning usually was around 8.30. Since the family stayed in Dadar, they had to walk to Wadala where the doctor lived. Often the doctor’s children and he himself would be fast asleep when the boy arrived with his father or mother. The next trip usually was around 2 pm. Since the doctor’s rooms were at Lamington Road, mother and son caught bus routes D or N. (I suspect you were not even born then and the BEST’s [Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport] switch to numerals was some years away.) Come night, the boy was back on Lamington Road.

Do you know why the boy survived, Mr Mehta? Because Dr Naik never gave up on him, not even when, apart from acute lung problems, he got diphtheria, double typhoid and small pox. The second reason will come as an unwelcome surprise to you: it’s because of that unparalleled Mumbai institution called BEST. The boy’s parents were far too poor to be able to catch a taxi except in an emergency. But BEST buses were always there and, believe me, mostly on time and plying frequently.

Times have changed. And how. The BEST’s standard of service has gone down considerably, the buses are old and rickety plus of terrible quality, and one is damn lucky if one gets a bus after half an hour. Almost a year ago, the population of this island metropolis rose to approximately 23 million. And that is precisely when you decided to declare that BEST had become an unbearable burden on the Mumbai municipality. As a result, you were once again going to take drastic measures like cancelling many routes and decimating the number of BEST buses plying in the city. But you were not going to stop at taking these draconian measures. You declared that like many a municipality in major metropolises in the world, the Mumbai municipality too would refuse to subsidise public transport. In short, you would not rest until you had completely destroyed this extraordinary institution, which was synonymous with Mumbai and a role model for transport authorities in other cities and countries.

You were true to your word. BEST bus fares had already been raised so steeply in 2015 that lakhs of commuters were driven out of the system. Now fares for distances over four kilometres within the city have been increased by up to Rs 12. What could an ordinary citizen like me say except, “Wow, Mr Mehta. Hats off to you. Just one query: how come you so glibly play with the truth?” Why not come clean and just say you intend to sublet the entire BEST transport franchise to private operators despite the fact that commuters in every Indian city which has chosen this option suffer ghastly hardships?

As one of the senior-most administrative officers in the country, you know very well that in almost every major city in the world public transportation has always been subsidised. That’s the only way the poorest of the poor who live in slums as well as those who belong to the lowest rungs of the middle class can afford to travel to work, and that too only when fares are reasonable. But when you so generously drop several bus routes, how is the man of the house or the mother to get to the workplace? It’s the same when you raise the bus fares: how can the man or the woman make a living when he or she can’t come up with the cash to buy the new far more expensive bus ticket to get to the workplace? Can you even begin to grasp that survival itself becomes almost impossible for millions in the workforce and their families when you take these measures?

'Mr Commissioner, we are all aware that you are spending thousands of crores of rupees on the super rich for whom you are building the coastal road.' Photo credit: HT

What is unforgivable is that thanks to your bogus and lethal logic of cutting down on public transport, our city has been seeing an extraordinary rise in the number of cars, stupendously large vans and two-wheelers, deliberately ignoring the extremely dangerous consequences of the escalating usage of fossil fuel. From early October last year until the end of March, Mumbai was shrouded in a 24x7 thick smog that did not lift even once. As to the appalling breathing problems and extremely dangerous lung infections that adults and especially children suffered from, you are at least partly responsible for this disaster. Make no mistake about it.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that the rampant building activity allowed by this and every other government of Maharashtra is any the less guilty for the dust in the air. But Mumbaikars are fed up of every government and municipal councilor and commissioner playing throw-ball when it comes to responsibility and culpability.

Surely you must recall what the panel of medical specialists said on NDTV when they showed the pitch black patches on the outside of the lungs. Quite simply it’s far far worse inside the lungs because when you inhale the microscopic particulate matter in the air, it never vacates the alveoli, and puts not just your lungs to severe risks and infections but affects every part of the body, and would very likely lead to lifelong deadly diseases.

It’s incomprehensible as to why, despite the fact that one of the solutions worked out for pollution-related problems is to substantially strengthen the provision of highly efficient modern bus services, you would take the retrograde option of steadily cutting down the BEST service.

You keep telling us time and again that the municipality is short of funds. It’s a trifle difficult to square that with so many heads of department under you always spending just a fraction of their budgets. (Needless to say, we’ll not mention how much of it makes its way into some pockets.) Mr Commissioner, we are all aware that you are spending thousands of crores of rupees on the super rich for whom you are building the coastal road, although you know damn well that this will only lead to the number of cars and the pollution levels rising exponentially.

We Mumbaikars also know with what care and detail our municipality plans and executes the repairs of roads before and after the rains and at what colossal costs. The choice of sub-standard materials and shoddy workmanship ensures that, invariably, all it takes is the first series of heavy showers to rip open the so-called scientifically filled in problem spots. Soon the entire length and breadth of the road is full of potholes and severely accident-prone. Fortunately, by now we have also learnt that building bad roads costs much more than straightforward solid roads that will last for decades. If there was even the slightest bit of integrity left in your august assembly, you would be able to save thousands of lakhs of rupees on the road budget alone.

So, Mr Commissioner, do the people of this city a big favour. Transfer some of the humongous quantums left over from annual road rebuilding and many of your other activities to strengthen the BEST fleet with the best available and most fuel-efficient and comfortable buses. And have the good sense to restore the cancelled routes. Bear in mind one simple truth: there was no pollution when that boy about whom I spoke at the start had to see the doctor thrice a day. However, when the pollution returns this year and our children fall terribly sick and have to be rushed to the doctors, the public will know you are one of the major parties responsible for the appalling suffering of the little ones.

Frankly sir, our beloved and beleaguered city deserves better in every possible way.

Warm regards,

Kiran Nagarkar is an award-winning novelist.