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The Maharashtra government and the municipal corporation in Mumbai have starved and crippled India’s once premier bus service BEST and now there is a move to further humiliate the bus service and its users.

A Shiv Sena corporator has proposed to the civic body that old BEST buses be used as mobile toilets ostensibly for use of commuters caught in traffic jams. This is extremely insulting by any standards.This is especially because the municipal corporation has an appalling record of doing its basic duty to provide public urinals and latrines to citizens all over the metropolis. And suddenly they trot out the excuse of commuters caught in traffic jams. The jams are actually caused by the government’s own inefficiency and failure to curb cars lording over roads and grabbing most of the space.

So the move is seen as a deliberate affront to people. This is obvious but became more obvious when one heard a speakers at a symposium on sanitation organized by the Urban Design Research Institute at Rachana Sansad architecture college in Mumbai on February 14. One heard appalling stories from about civic insanitation and these came not from activists whom the government is quick to condemn as negative in outlook. These came from highly placed people working in organisations like Tata Trusts and Aga Khan Trust.

The anti-BEST move would further lower the image of the once reputed public service organization. This in sharp contrast to the constant image building of cars done by the automobile lobby extolling cars for their design, for giving freedom and status. The aesthetic of cars is constantly extolled and is illustrated by the title of this book `Cars – freedom, style, sex, power, motion, colour, everything.” The book is written by Stephen Bayley, a prominent art critic and a defender of colonialism.

So the move to associate a public utility body with filth is reprehensible. Occasionally, in few places buses have been used as toilets, but to use a an acclaimed public transport bus has offensive connotations.

Such attack on public transport is obviously driven by the automobile lobby’s fear over worldwide sales slowing down and the appeal of the car is dwindling among the young. So the idea is to downgrade, ridicule public transport. Kill road public transport as was systematically done in the U.S. so that you get more buyers for cars, that is obviously the game plan.

The assault on BEST has also to be seen against the background of the automotive mission plan devised jointly by the government of India and automobile manufacturers with a determination to triple industry revenues and expand exports seven fold.

It shows the cosy relationship of the government with the automobile industry. Has one ever heard of the government ever collaborating with public bus or train commuters or pedestrians and evolved a plan in their interest. That would be a compelling part of any democratic framework. Yet, not only such dialogues are not held, even written submissions and requests for appointments with government, civic officials, sent by selfless activists are treated with contempt, not even replied to.

So, it is crystal clear. The government is seen to be a close ally of the automobile lobby and is hostile to the interests of common people.

It is against the background of a deliberate humiliation of BEST and is users that a public hearing on the current crisis in BEST is to be held on first of March in Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh, opposite the BMC headquarters building, near CST. When the Supreme Court ruled in 2016 against BEST’s cross subsidy scheme (through which an electricity division running in surplus financed the transport division’s deficit), many expected that the city’s municipal corporation (MCGM) would fund BEST. However, MCGM denied BEST funds, claiming that it was “inefficient” and that BEST would have to implement a package of reforms before it could receive funding. Over the past several years, due to paucity of funds, BEST services have declined precariously. While the MCGM has declined to fund BEST, it has embarked on building a Rs 15,000-crore coastal road whose use will be restricted almost solely to private transport users of the city. On the midnight of 7 th January, BEST workers went on an indefinite strike, demanding, among other things, the merger of the BEST’s budget with the MCGM’s own budget, so as to assure BEST of a steady flow of funding. The strike ended with most of the issues being referred to a court-appointed mediator, with the aim of bringing them to a negotiated resolution. The strike brought to the fore once again the vital role of BEST in the city’s transport system. Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST is a citizens’ forum fighting for a publicly owned, affordable, accessible and decent bus transport in the city. The organization believes that every resident of this city has a right to a public transport system with all of the aforementioned qualities, and that the city needs it for its physical, economic and social health. It is with this understanding that over the past year and a half AMAB has been campaigning in various parts of the city in various forms. The public hearing is meant to bring together individual commuters and organizations from different parts of the city, document their experiences with public transport, trace the root causes of the present crisis, and to find solutions which are pro-people and sustainable. The individuals/representatives of organizations who wish to provide testimonies of their experiences have been invited to do so in front of a five-member panel at the public hearing: ● Justice Hosbet Suresh (Retd., Bombay High Court), Chairman of the panel. ● Nikhil Wagle, Journalist ● Zubeida Sayyed, Housing Rights’ Activist (Committee for Right to Housing) ● R. Ramakumar, Economist (TISS) ● D. Parthasarathy, Sociologist (IIT Bombay). The panel would prepare a report and present it to the public.

Mumbai’s municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta has been most vocal in denying budgetary support to the BEST though BEST is an inseparable part of civic governance and civic life. His arguments are most unconvincing. It is true, BEST drastically needs to improve its efficiency. It is not even able to handle the , simple ,new technology of automatic announcements of next bus stops in buses. I notice that completely wrong, misleading announcements are made about the next destination. There is a basic problem with the instruments and the driver on the bus needs to set things right.So BEST must take various steps to improve its image, functioning. But to a great degree the municipal and government poliices have resulted in the crippling of the BEST undertaking.

More importantly about Mr Mehta’s arguments about efficiency and losses targeting public sector and he wants to privatise the bus service. . Let me give an example from the automobile sector and private sector itself. The Tatas is , one of the most efficient private sector groups but its company Tata Motors has suffered what is seen as the biggest loss in Indian corporate history estimated at Rs. 26,000 crore. That is the latest report of quarterly operations. The shares of Tata Motors have tumbled by thirty per cent in the last one week.

Similarly, another Tata venture, Nano car production has come to a halt. It was internationally hailed as a great innovation.

All these losses of Nano have occurred despite a virtually interest free loan of Rs. Nine thousand crore given by Gujarat govt when Mr Modi was the chief minister, plus numerous other concessions regarding land, water etc.

The point is that even efficient companies can make losses and one of the reasons is market conditions are beyond the control. Tata Motors losses are because of a steep fall in demand in China for Jaguar and other cars.

Not a single nano has been manufactured or sold in the last few months. All this is on record.

Besides, if Mr Modi could give such concessions to Tatas for a car, why should not the Maharashtra state government evolve a mechanism to give subsidy to BEST which is crucial for the lives of lakhs of people, it is so close to their lives, memories. Surely, public transport deserves far more subsidy than a private car. But all indications are that the government is friendly with the motor lobby and not with the common people.

The current assault on public transport and is users coincides with the car lobby, in India, represented by the Western India Automobile Association, celebrating its centenary earlier this month with a brazen display of high powered new car models and motor cycles, making a deafening noise, along with vintage cars at a motor car show at Bandra Kurla complex where no ordinary mortal could enter. The entry fee was Rs. 300. It is hardly surprising that this area has very poor connectivity by public transport with suburban railway stations of Kurla and Bandra, focal points for commuters.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book that demands democratisation of transport and opposes the dominance of the automobile lobby

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