An indefinite strike called by the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Workers’ Union that kept buses off roads on Tuesday, has drawn attention once again to the relative decline of Bombay. For 50 years after Independence, BEST lived up to its name, providing affordable public transport for hundreds of thousands of commuters each day. Along with overcrowded but efficient local trains, taxis and autos that charged by the meter, and an uninterrupted power supply, it made Bombay the most liveable big city in the nation.

I was a BEST regular through secondary school and college, because the train station was just distant enough to make a bus ride preferable. Although I switched to cabs once I could afford them, I would have continued as an occasional rider had BEST maintained its modest standards. Sadly, the management introduced innovations to boost revenue that made bus rides an ordeal. The familiar cushioned metal benches were thrown out in favour of uncomfortable plastic moulded buckets provided by a private firm that rented out the back of each seat for advertisements. Monitors installed at the head of each bus played shrieky commercials non-stop. I would not step into one of those vehicles if you paid me to do it.

Rider numbers dropped as the BEST management pushed short-sighted initiatives instead of focussing on efficiency, affordability and comfort. It is easy to explain managers’ priorities: new revenue streams created opportunities for under-the table gains, while a push for improved services would have entailed greater effort for no monetary benefit. The profit motive sometimes masqueraded as reform. In 1998, BEST had introduced air-conditioned buses on routes frequented by white-collar executives. A decade later, amid fanfare, the fleet was upgraded to luxury coaches manufactured by China’s King Long company. The buses kept breaking down and damaged the Chinese company’s reputation considerably, till it was revealed the so-called King Long buses were actually manufactured by JayCee Coach Builders Limited, Punjab.

Chicken and egg

The worst new idea among a pile of bad ones was selling off BEST assets for commercial development. A massive depot in Kurla and a smaller one in Mahim went under the hammer to builders of high-rises before better sense prevailed. The desperate search for earnings was triggered not just by venality but by the end of a long-standing system of cross-subsidy. Transport and electricity had first been tied together in colonial Bombay because trams used the output of the power company. After Independence, the partnership continued based on losses incurred by buses being covered by levies on electric supply. The privatisation of power distribution put the system under stress until it collapsed under a heap of court cases and and regulatory verdicts.

The rational response to the changed circumstances would have been to separate transport from electricity entirely, and bring BEST buses into the municipal corporation’s fold. That is one of the demands of the striking workers, and makes complete sense. The municipal corporation, however, has chosen a tough love approach. We will pay off your dues, Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta has told the BEST management, provided you get your act together. A subsidy is acceptable, but there are going to be no blank cheques issued. His demand seems reasonable considering the organisation is haemorrhaging riders, going from around 45 lakh daily rides a decade ago to 26 lakh today, a shocking 40% drop. The number of vehicles it runs has also dropped significantly, leading to a high ratio of staff to buses. While rational on the surface, the municipal corporation’s attitude has created a chicken and egg situation: BEST cannot return to its glory days without new investment, and new investment is being withheld until it shows signs of recapturing that lost glory.

Outsourcing bus services

The municipal corporation plans to spend, instead, on outsourcing bus services. Under the plan it forced on BEST, private bidders will provide buses and drivers, take care of maintenance costs, and agree to run the buses for a minimum distance each month, in return for a fixed payment per kilometre. This is along the lines of London’s experience of transport disinvestment in the 1980s, during which private companies took over the running of the UK capital’s buses while routes and ticket prices were regulated by the state. The privatisation process initiated by Margaret Thatcher was comprehensive and transparent. In typically Indian fashion, the planned changes to BEST are piecemeal, patchy, and called “wet leasing” rather than privatisation. Nevertheless, the intent of the municipal authorities is clear.

Like every other public sector undertaking, BEST is burdened by legacy expenses. Staff costs account for 60% of its budget, leaving little room for fresh development. Had the BEST management been able to retain riders over the past decade, it could have made a credible argument for the municipal corporation to subsidise its present rate of losses. Had BEST staff been less lackadaisical, they might have mitigated the problems caused by bad management decisions instead of compounding them. The way losses have been mounting, however, it is tempting to tell BEST it had its chance and failed, and now it is time to try the proposed alternative.

There are, however, at least two worrying details in Ajoy Mehta’s part-privatisation proposal. New drivers are to be trained for a week, which seems far from adequate. Operating large buses on narrow, crowded streets is no easy task, and requires far more training than envisaged by the municipal corporation. Further, there appear to be no guidelines for salaries and facilities to be provided to employees of the private firms, which means contractors will maximise profits by squeezing drivers, losing the best ones in the process, leading to accidents and delays. We risk going from the frying pan of an inept, bloated bus service to the fire of an exploitative firm offering perilous rides.