Certainly not at its BEST

July 11th, 2009

This one is going to sound like a rant over a seemingly trivial issue, especially for those who do not have to rely on public transport. Who on earth would want to read a thousand-word diatribe against what almost everybody—including this blogger—thinks of as Maximum City’s iconic service? Nevertheless.

I have always marveled at the clockwork efficiency of the two pillars of Mumbai’s commuting system—the local train and the BEST buses, and have often harped about them in discussions with colleagues from Delhi, a city which is only beginning to get a taste of what public transport should really be.

Which is why it came as a bit of a shock to me when the guy behind the wheel in one of those new air-conditioned BEST buses refused to open the door for me and a fellow passenger. His reason—we weren’t at the designated stop.

Here is what happened. The two of us had just missed the bus at the stop, but saw that it had halted at the traffic signal some 15-20 feet ahead. So we run up to the vehicle and knock at the glass door, asking to be let in. The driver, however, decides to throw the rulebook at us instead and doesn’t oblige despite repeated pleas, while the conductor merrily sits down nonchalantly on one the seats, deliberately oblivious to our existence.

That’s when the two of us decide to play tough. We go and stand right in front of the vehicle, blocking its path for a good 10 minutes, because of which it misses as many as four green signals. Charlie, meanwhile, is unmoved. He simply switches off the AC, throws out a yawn, while deputy digs his little finger into his ear, waiting for the “cattle” to clear the road.

All this while, none of the other passengers decide to take up for us. Instead, two elderly persons come right up to the front of the vehicle and start yelling at us from inside, ostensibly holding us responsible for a possible blot on their punctuality record. Doesn’t getting to office on time matter to us as well? While neither side can hear the other through soundproof doors, a little bit of lip-reading tells us one of the old men is threatening to call the cops. We don’t relent, so he does. We stay put.

Moments later, my ‘partner in crime’ sees the next AC bus approaching from a distance and decides to call off the protest. We head towards the stop where two cops accost us, asking what the problem is. We explain our point firmly but politely, are asked for our names, ages and mobile numbers, but not home or office addresses, and are allowed to hop on to the next bus when it comes.

Did we behave like juveniles? The pair of geriatric commuters obviously thought we did, though I can’t say anything about the other mutes inside the bus that morning. Let me make my case for why I think we were right.
For starters, we were consumers of the service and if we felt it was deficient, we were well within our rights to protest peacefully—which we did. I also say the driver’s ‘official’ stance was that he was merely following BEST rules was not driven by conscience, but by a self-acquired right to act tough and say no.

AC buses don’t run throughout the day. What if this one were the last of the morning? Worse, what if I were a pass-holder? Could I be denied the comfort of traveling AC when the establishment itself has taken a month’s fare in advance for a promise of service?

Secondly, any Mumbaikar will tell you that for all its efficiency, the BEST is making huge losses. In fact, its accumulated cash losses are estimated to have exceeded Rs 1,600 crore in 2008-09. And all of this was on account of the transport division—BEST’s other service, power distribution, is profitable. Despite this, the transport division’s employees are among the most highly paid public utility servants in the country. The pay, in fact, is so good, that the division’s establishment costs, which include wages paid to drivers and conductors, amount to as much as 96 per cent of the revenues the division generated, according to news reports quoting the utility’s general manager, Uttam Khobragade.

While figures on seat occupancy are difficult to come by, one can safely assume that if the transport division has to stay afloat in the long run, capacity usage has to be ramped up.

BEST, in fact, has been spending huge amounts on ads, appealing to Mumbaikars to move from private transport to its buses and has even introduced a facility that allows commuters to flag down and board moving buses on routes such as 211, which serves Bandra West. The driver has to oblige and can be hauled up if he doesn’t.

The flag down rule obviously doesn’t apply to AC buses, but I don’t recall having seen any other driver of such vehicles refuse passengers the right to board if the bus is absolutely stationery and has vacant seats. And I am not too sure BEST has instructed its drivers not to let in passengers in such cases in the first place.

By denying us entry, the driver served to defeat the efforts of the establishment to keep its head above the water. My fare was Rs 25, that of my co-passenger, Rs 15. Assuming that’s the loss the bus makes on every journey, the establishment will be forced to forego revenue of Rs 2,080 a month on a single bus, based on two trips a day for 26 days. I don’t what BEST drivers earn in a month, but anyone’s uncle can tell that’s a huge percentage of their gross monthly pay.

Thirdly—and this one is for the geriatrics and the mutes—BEST has been known to discontinue loss making routes in the past. By lambasting us (as the old men did) and for keeping quiet (as the rest of them did) they were working against our interests as well as their own. All they could and should have done was to ask Charlie to open the door and let us in. There’s strength in numbers.



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