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The rulers went out of their way to bring pressure on public sector banks to bail out the unprofessionally run private airline Jet Airways. This put at risk thousands of crores of public funds. There are double standards here. On the one hand the glamorous airline industry is pampered and on the other hand the BEST bus undertaking serving millions of ordinary people is starved of funds and its users are humiliated.

Public sector banks also stare at possible loss of lakhs of crores of rupees lent to loss making units of Anil Ambani, Esssar, Jaypee group, ILFS, DHFL and others. In many cases this was done without due diligence.

Our rulers have shown the same contempt for ordinary commuters as some in the aviation industry have shown.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, has said cyclists should be “taken out and shot” and that Dublin needs better commuter solutions than merely increasing the number of bicycles.

In a broadside on Dublin City Council, which has been promoting bicycles as a form of transport in the city, Mr O’Leary said the last thing the capital needs is an increase in cycling, reported the Irish Times two years ago.

Within the aviation industry itself there is dirty politics. Jitender Bhargava, a veteran in the field, has lambasted this in his book whose title is self explanatory. The Descent of Air India: An Insider’s View of How A Once Globally Cherished Brand Was Grounded By Those Entrusted With The Task of Making It Soar. He has specifically mentioned former civil aviation minister Praful Patel in this connection.

India has been one huge graveyard of airline firms – Damania, ModiLuft, East-West Airlines, Sahara Airlines, Air Deccan, Kingfisher Airlines and, now, Jet Airways.Some of these entrepreneurs had suspect antecedents – one headed a group of chronic defaulters, another was eventually shot dead in an underworld hit, as Sucheta Dalal, highly respected writer on economic issues, points out.

Sahara Airlines and Air Deccan were purchased by Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines, respectively. They are examples of how bankers, usually from public sector banks (PSBs), ever amenable to political pressure and manipulation, fund these misadventures and allow outstanding loans to balloon.

Privatisation has proved a major failure in infrastructure projects in India in the last two decades.Yet, the civic administration in Mumbai is bent on privatising the BEST bus service in the city which has been systematically neglected in favour of private transport.

A study by RUPE, research unit in political economy, has completely exposed the role of the civic body in this connection.

According to the currently dominant ideology, privatisation is identified with greater ‘efficiency’ (the meaning of which term is kept vague). Privatisation may take different forms: the handing over of existing public sector assets to private investors; permitting private investors to enter sectors hitherto reserved for the public sector; opening up the exploration and mining of mineral wealth to private investors; promoting insurance schemes in place of universal provision of basic services; contracting out to private firms jobs hitherto done by the public sector; and so on, RUPE says.

Contracting does not appear to prevent falling ridership or rising losses. Bangalore’s performance alone was better till 2014-15, but has since sharply deteriorated. Pune shows that multiple problems can arise with contracting out – poor services, frequent breakdowns and fires, disputes with contractors, even as subsidies rise and ridership falls. The subsidies to Delhi’s private buses in the cluster system amount to Rs 10/passenger; indeed, a similar subsidy to BEST would eliminate its present annual deficit!

In sum, then, BEST’s decision to engage private contractors to provide bus services, in place of its own services, cannot be justified even in narrow financial terms. This is apart from the permanent damage that would be done by dismantling an important institution which has provided Mumbai a critical public service for decades.

(a) The BMC has utterly failed to aid BEST with special measures for reducing traffic congestion. Such measures include targeted management of traffic and parking, providing access to railway stations, and dedicated bus lanes. We need look no further than BEST’s own words, in its 2016-17 Budget: “It has been proved time and again that we have been able to ferry more passengers with our existing fleet with better mobility. This has been experience during the various taxi/auto strikes in the city. This proves adequately that with better mobility, we have enough capacity and ability to ferry more passengers and earn more revenue with our existing fleet. We have been therefore vigorously following up with the MCGM and the Traffic Police for the following measures that will improve considerably the passengers carried and the revenue earned by us. 1. Dedicated bus lanes on certain stretches. 2. Painting of yellow boxes at the bus stops. 3. ‘Set back’ for BEST bus stops wherever possible. 4. Removal of encroachments 5. Assistance of Traffic Police for resolving traffic clogging situation at several heavily affected areas. 6. Better mobility at the railway stations. 7. Introduction of Station Area Traffic Improvement Schemes (SATIS).” However, the BMC has not fulfilled a single one of these.

The priorities of our ruling circles are completely skewed. They want more and more people to fly, they want to bring down airline fares but at the same time they are reducing the fleet of public transport buses, humiliating ordinary bus commuters and they want to increase bus fares to unaffordable levels

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book seeking democratization of passenger transport and challenging motor car dominance


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