Sometime in the mid-1980s: the bus was full of chattering children in school uniforms. Conductor uncle was indulgent, yet firm. But this was not a school bus, though it looked like one. It was a BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) bus and all of us were certain it belonged to us.

In July, a thread of tweets with the hashtag #BESTStories invoked nostalgia with citizens of Mumbai and elsewhere talking about routes they took as children, about friendships, blossoming and failed romances that marked these bus rides, about sitting on the front seat on top of a double-decker bus, but most of all about the freedom, mobility and fun the BEST buses facilitated.

Research conducted by the Gender and Space project, of which I was a part, between 2003 and 2006 on women’s access to public spaces in Mumbai, published in the book Why Loiter?, demonstrated unequivocally that public transport – the city’s network of BEST buses, suburban trains and the links between the two – made Mumbai the friendliest, most accessible city in the country for women. A decade later, we are seeing the gradual erosion of BEST services and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s articulation of its intent to hand over operations to private agencies and sell bus depots to real estate developers. In short, to unravel a system that works, and works brilliantly.

Our research also revealed narratives of sexual harassment on BEST buses, yet women in our study reported that they found buses safer than trains because one could get off anywhere. Also, in Mumbai, BEST conductors are more likely to throw sexual harassers off buses than elsewhere in the country. In the 1980s, I recollect being on a bus that was taken to a police station to report a sexual harasser on two occasions.

In the weeks following the gangrape and murder of a young woman in an off-duty chartered bus in Delhi in December 2012, one pointed out that such a crime could not take place in a Mumbai bus because the system ensured that BEST buses could not be taken on joyrides. Now, it seems we may no longer have a reason to feel so smugly safe since the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation is all set to privatise a service that makes access to the city for women possible.

Saving BEST

These plans have been met with protests, which are growing in number. The Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST movement, for instance, has put forward its people’s plan for BEST, which includes demands for subsidised public transport, accessibility and affordability, dis-incentivising private transport, and accountability and consultation in the decision-making process. On Monday, this citizens’ platform, along with the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, organised a panel discussion titled “Better than BEST? The Future of Public Transport in Mumbai”.

Speaking of the gendered nature of transport usage at the discussion, feminist activist Sandhya Gokhale pointed out that women in Mahul – most of them relocated from slums in other parts of the city to make way for infrastructure projects – are poorly served by BEST. The fare to Kurla, one of the nearest railway stations, is Rs 16, often well beyond their means.

Jagnarayan M Gupta, head of the BEST Kamgar Sagathana or workers’ union, said a total of 785 buses are detained in depots every day for lack of staff. The numbers tell their own story: 112 routes have been suspended so far, 95 trips have been cancelled since August 2017, increasing the gap between buses on a route, and 230 air-conditioned buses have been “retired” since April 2017. These cuts have meant reduced wages, lack of bonuses and increasing contractual employment for workers, whose numbers are dwindling. Gupta also pointed out that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, said to be the country’s richest municipal body, does not subsidise BEST. Instead, it loans money to BEST and charges it interest.

According to transport expert Ashok Datar, there are now more people using various forms of private transport than those using public transport and this does not augur well for any city. He argued that money from parking can and should be used to subsidise BEST.

Amita Bhide, professor at the School of Habitat Studies, tied up the arguments succinctly, arguing that public transport is not an enterprise but a service. It must be operated by a public entity in the interest of the public and it must run on public money. Any commitment to a genuine service cannot involve privatisation as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation seems to desire. Bhide said the corporation must recognise that the users of these services are citizens, not consumers.

‘It belongs to us, the city’s citizens’

In Mumbai, public services are increasingly being privatised or are being built for private uses (such as the construction of a coastal road instead of bailing out BEST and enhancing its services). Healthcare and education, too, are going the privatisation way. The slow dismantling of BEST may just be the proverbial last straw needed to galvanise citizens into action.

Not just the stuff of Mumbai nostalgia, BEST is a living, breathing system that facilitates the livelihoods of the city’s poor, and access and mobility for its women and marginal citizens. We cannot and must not let it unravel. As children in the 1980s, we instinctively understood the principle of a public service, that it belongs to us, the city’s citizens. We must continue to do so.

Shilpa Phadke is co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets.