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The sad decline of Mumbai's BEST bus service

April 11, 2012 17:50 IST

Once one of the best bus services in the country, the Bombay Electric Supply & Transport company has regressed into a loss-making, lumbering giant that clearly is not interested in serving the Mumbai long-suffering commuter, says Mahesh Vijapurkar

When Mumbai's transport system got its bus service provider, the Bombay Electric Supply & Transport company, someone clever must have chosen the name. It fabulously translated into a neat acronym which at once implied the quality of its service as being superlative: BEST. It was so, when before the advent of the omnibus as a critical carrier of persons, the 'T' stood for 'tramways'.

It was the most cited transport organisation for its efficiency, its expansive reach, its punctuality, its good upkeep of the vehicles, and the commitment to quality which was appreciated by millions who used the bus to get from point to point. The ubiquitous red bus was the best among all cities. Appropriately as the word BEST is emblazoned on the buses' sides.

But is it so any longer? Is BEST at its best?

It perhaps is not. Here is why.

The topping over of a double-decker bus, as happened recently near Bandra's Kalanagar is a serious symptom of some of its ills which started a while ago. Of course it was an accident, but news reports suggest that there was an alleged attempt to beat the traffic signal; the outcome could have been worse than the death of a motorcycle rider.

The double-decker is as iconic to Mumbai as the Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Gateway of India, or the Marine Drive and even the slums. Its involvement in an accident is not something to be just swept under the carpet as just one of those things that happen. BEST is also a lifeline, as are the local trains, carrying roughly as many people as do the latter.

Here are two perspectives from which the BEST can be evaluated. One is from the point of view of a commuter and those who also share the roads with them, and the other, from its financial and attendant aspects.

The first one first. A bus does not arrive at a bus stop on schedule, and does not reach the destination in time, either. When it rumbles to a stand where passengers are waiting, it stops way off from the kerb further strangulating an already choked road. That explains why a disciplined bus service which once saw neatly formed queues is no more a tradition of the city.

In fact, in a city known for its scorching sun and copious rains, there are bus stands which have a pole with a small board on it. Even on the arterial roads which render locating a stand difficult unless you are a regular. And the new-fangled ones seem to have been designed for their aesthetics than utility, more to meet the advertisers' needs than the passengers'.

The buses used to be neat and clean; not so anymore. The window panes are close to being opaque, laden with grime. Dust and dirt are to be seen on their floors, even in the morning when they start on their daily routes implying that maintenance apparently now does not including keeping them clean.

The bus crew used to be polite to a fault, even able and willing to tell a passenger which bus route to take from some other point to some other destination. There is a noticeable brusqueness among them; some are even prone to get into an unseemly argument. This has less to do with the poor finances and more to do with the BEST's declining values in its corporate culture.

It has fallen on hard days and the service tells, not all of it coming from causes of its own making. The over-congested roads which are preferred, and self-defeatingly so by users of private cars, has reduced their average speed to less than 12 km per hour, thus adding to fuel consumption. Consequently, the services became unpunctual.

That, one has to concede, is the signs of the times. But there is an egg-or-chicken first conundrum hidden in it: had more buses, as do the trains but unfortunately without much impact, plied the roads, wouldn't the roads have been less congested? Wouldn't that have keep cars off the roads and kept the operations efficient?

There is a correlation between efficiency, and profits, and according to a report card from the Union transport ministry, BEST is the second highest loss-making public transport undertaking despite its huge fleet strength.  And despite being municipalised, it has no support from the civic body, the one with the highest annual budget. It has not provided any financial support to the BEST perhaps due to its own woes of its own making: prioritising politics ahead of citizens.

Politics alone would have countenance, for instance, of acquiring a fleet of poor quality King Long air-conditioned buses to operate long routes meant to take the pressure off the roads by luring car-owners to opt for them. They were meant to serve the long-awaited rapid transit but they are the least qualified to enable anything rapid: they huff and puff, even catch fire and lumber ever so slowly. There are, as proportion to the total of each kind, many more of these buses in poor repair and stabled than the ordinary red buses are.

The only blessing for the BEST is that the long-suffering commuter -- and there about five million of them -- stomach it because he just wants to get from point A to point B, anyhow. And since the BEST is the cheapest, he opts for it, suffocating in the packed buses like the commuters on the local trains do. It is his helplessness. But BEST need not be helpless; it can get its act together and remain true to the acronym.

But will it?

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator who prefers the common man's viewpoint

Mahesh Vijapurkar