For the past week, going to work has been a terrifying experience for Rahul Patil (name changed), a conductor with Mumbai’s Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport or the BEST public bus services.

On May 13, Patil heard the news that a ticket-checker from his south Mumbai depot, Kisan Kumbhkar, had died, allegedly after contracting the novel coronavirus.

“He had been on duty almost every day before he fell sick, and many of us had interacted with him at the depot,” said Patil. “Ideally everyone who had come in contact with Kumbhkar at work should have been quarantined and tested for Covid-19, but none of that has been done. We are expected to report to work as usual, and it is very scary.”

Patil’s fear of catching coronavirus is shared by several other BEST staffers and unions representing them, who allege that lack of work safety measures has led to a high number of Covid-19 cases among the BEST workforce, in a city that has already recorded 22,746 coronavirus cases and 800 deaths so far.

Since March 24, when the country went into a strict lockdown to contain Covid-19, Mumbai’s public buses have been the only form of transport available to essential workers who need to get around the city. BEST has been regularly running around 1,200 buses on special routes that cover the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region, and nearly 6,000 drivers, conductors and depot staff have been on duty.

According to BEST’s official figures, there have been 128 Covid-19 cases among the staff, with eight deaths and 63 people recovering. Another 1,000 employees have been quarantined at some point during the lockdown, after being contact-traced to Covid-19 patients. Of them, 971 have now finished their quarantine periods and resumed work.

BEST workers’ unions, however, claim that at least 19 staffers have died due to coronavirus and the total number of Covid-19 cases is likely much higher than 128.

While BEST’s spokesperson claimed that the names of the deceased are “confidential”, Patil’s colleague Kisan Kumbhkar is on a list of 17 workers that union Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST believes have died of Covid-19 so far. “Not everyone who died has received their Covid test reports, but they were hospitalised with Covid symptoms,” said Jagnarayan Gupta, a general secretary of the BEST Kamgar Sangathana union and a member of Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST. was unable to independently verify whether Kumbhkar was a Covid-19 patient.

On May 18, one of the BEST unions observed a day-long strike to bring attention to the impact of Covid-19 on BEST employees. “But the administration has not responded and little has changed for workers,” said Shashank Rao, the leader of the BEST Sanyukt Kamgaar Kruti Samiti, which called for the May 18 strike. “Thousands of workers still have to report to work, with bad conditions and no insurance provided, while Covid cases among staff has been increasing.”

The cases have spooked several drivers and conductors, who allege that BEST has not provided them with adequate masks, gloves or sanitisers to protect them while on the job. What’s worse, they say, is that the company has been calling many more employees to work than required, which has unnecessarily put large numbers of workers at risk.

Over-employing workers

Patil, for instance, claims that he has frequently been asked to report to his depot during the lockdown, only to be sent home after several hours of waiting because his services were not required on that day.

“If 20 buses are being run from the depot on one day, why call 70 to 80 staff members to work?” said Patil. “It causes overcrowding in the depot and forces me to endanger my family every day when I get back home.”

A file photo of BEST buses parked in a depot. Photo: Reuters

Patil relies on BEST buses to travel between home and the depot, and on days when he is sent home without being given work, he often finds it difficult to get a bus home. “On some days I have had to take lifts from friends and travel triple-seat on a bike, so there is no way to maintain distance.”

Prakash Gopal (name changed), a bus driver from suburban Mumbai’s Marol depot, has similar complaints. His depot, he says, operated around 250 buses every day before the lockdown, and employed up to 1,200 drivers and conductors. “After the lockdown, we have been operating between 30 and 35 buses from the depot, for which not more than 150 staff is required. But every day, they call up to 250 or 300 people to work,” said Gopal. “When we assemble in the depots to fill in our attendance and wait for our schedules, it is not possible to follow social distancing.”

A dearth of safety gear

A consistent complaint among BEST workers that spoke to was the lack of safety gear.

According to Manoj Varade, the chief public relations officer of BEST, all workers have been provided with masks and hand sanitisers, and will also be provided with face shields. Inside buses, passenger capacity has been reduced by half to ensure physical distancing. “Buses carrying hospital staff have also been fitted with plastic screens around the driver’s area to protect the driver,” said Varade.

Several workers, however, painted a different picture.

At some depots, workers claim they had been provided with N-95 masks on one or two occasions, at others, workers had been given use-and-throw masks a few times but were largely asked to make their own arrangements. No one had been provided with gloves, and hand sanitisers were available only at depots – not inside the buses.

“As conductors, we have to constantly touch bus railings and other people’s money, and we are regularly exposed to essential workers like doctors and nurses who work with Covid patients,” said Rajesh Gomre (name changed), an employee at suburban depot who did not wish to reveal his real name. “We should be provided with new masks and gloves every day, and we should get sanitiser bottles to keep using in the bus. But the company gave me an N-95 mask once, and nothing else.”

On May 13, after more than a month of working in lockdown-special buses, Gomre tested positive for coronavirus. His symptoms are mild, and he is now recuperating at an isolation centre in suburban Mumbai. He believes he must have caught the virus either from a passenger or from a colleague at his depot whose brother had tested positive for Covid-19 two weeks ago.

A BEST bus plastered with an awareness ad about coronavirus. Photo courtesy: Manoj Varade, BEST

“He should have been quarantined the moment his brother got Covid, but instead he kept coming to work for the next few days and the depot management did not stop him,” said Gomre, who is now worried for his wife, two young children and aged grandmother who are quarantined at home. “They have been tested and until their reports come negative, I will not be able to rest.”

Patil, who has received use-and-throw masks from his depot just five times since the lockdown began, claims he has had to make do with handkerchiefs and other low quality masks to cover his mouth and nose. “There have been times when health workers travelling in my buses have taken pity and offered me their own extra masks, even though they work in hospitals and need them more than me,” said Patil.

Are buses disinfected?

Inside bus depots too, workers allege that hygiene levels are not adequate. Both Gopal and Patil, for instance, claim that staff members are given just a few squirts of hand sanitiser a day at their depots. “The sanitisers are not very strong and even in the bathrooms, the soaps given are very diluted,” said Gopal.

Every BEST depot has a medical unit, and unions have alleged that they have not been optimised to monitor workers’ health or help those who display Covid symptoms get admitted to quarantine centres or hospitals.

Union leader Jagnarayan Gupta also alleged that the buses are not being disinfected properly, even though disinfection is necessary every day. “The buses are being washed daily, but we have been hearing from workers that all buses used during the lockdown are not being regularly sprayed with disinfectant,” said Gupta, the general secretary of the BEST Kamgar Sangathana.

BEST spokesperson Manoj Varade, however, refuted the unions’ allegations.

All buses, he said, were being sprayed with a fifth-generation ammonium compound every night to disinfect them. “Buses are also being sprayed during the day time at depots, between two trips,” he said.

Varade also claimed that BEST’s medical units in depots had conducted over 1,000 lectures to educate workers about health and safety during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that health check-ups had been conducted for nearly 14,500 staff members. Around 2,000 workers have been asked to stay at home, he said, because they had co-morbidities that put them at risk for coronavirus.

“We have also provided jobs to family members of four of our staff who have died of Covid,” said Varade.