Heavy hearts, angry questions as Mumbai prepares to phase out double-decker buses

Running the iconic and popular double decker buses is economically unviable, says BEST. Activists, however, question the transport utility's myopic approach and the wisdom of phasing out a service that holds such a special place in the hearts of Mumbaikars.

Remember Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan? In his very first film, eminent Bollywood film maker Saeed Mirza had showcased the view of the city from the upper deck of a double decker bus, wherein the characters stated that this was the best way to see the city of Mumbai. Many films like Shaan (an entire song was shot on a double decker bus) and even a much more recent hit, Ghajini (the Tamil version) had scenes in which these buses had provided the perfect backdrop. Unfortunately, very soon, scenes such as these will be the only place where you can see one of these buses.

Mumbai’s iconic double decker buses, maintained and operated by the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), have long symbolised the city’s popular transport system, its culture and vibrancy, but are fast disappearing from the city’s streets and are expected to be completely eased out by October 2023. At its peak in 1982, about 864 such buses operated in the city, which has been on a steady decline since then. 

BEST has already stopped procuring new double-decker buses and is replacing the existing ones with regular single decker buses. According to the BEST budget, this financial year, about 72 such buses are being scrapped, following the rule of easing out 15-year-old heavy vehicles. The last of these buses will be scrapped over the next three years. 

Currently, about 120 of the total fleet size of 3200 buses — roughly 3.75% are double decker buses; they ply in about 10 of the total 420 bus routes, ferrying about 30 lakh passengers on a daily basis. 

The issue has rightly kicked up a storm among old-time citizens of Mumbai, who see it as a death knell for the city’s heritage. Activists like Irfan Machiwala  and Mustaq Ansari have already petitioned the new chief minister Uddhav Thackeray urging him to intervene and retain at least a few such buses for the sake of history and heritage. 

Unsustainable, says BEST

BEST, which had introduced double decker buses in the city way back in 1937 and runs the city’s road public transport service, has justified downsizing of these popular buses citing high operational costs. As of August 2019, the operations cost of a regular bus was Rs 126.05 per km while for a double decker, the same works out to Rs 200.46 per km, as shared by Manoj Varade, the deputy public relations officer of BEST.  

The passenger carrying capacity of a double decker bus, as approved by the Road Transport Organisation, is 88 passengers (78 sitting and 10 standing) — only marginally higher than the 73-passenger capacity approved for a single decker bus. However, it needs an extra conductor for the upper deck, thus increasing their operational costs. 

“The double decker buses require wider and less congested roads thus restricting the number of routes on which they can be pressed into service,” explains Varade, adding “Of late, there has been a sharp rise in vehicular traffic, besides encroachment of roads by hawkers, compounded by haphazard parking and regular digging works for various utilities. These cramp the passage of double decker buses, affecting bus frequency and schedules. Since we are a public utility service, we decided to introduce more medium and mini size buses that suit the narrow roads.” The double decker buses cannot ply on roads with sharp curves since they need more space to manoeuvre. 

The maintenance costs for a double decker are also higher than a regular bus. With the BEST running into huge losses, its most recent 2020-21 budget has revealed a budget deficit of Rs 2249 crore. This is in spite of the Rs 2100 crore pumped in by its parent organisation, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, to stabilise it.  

Many measures, such as its most recent decision to attract more commuters to  the BEST bus services by reducing its minimum ticket price to Rs 5 in July 2019, has only led to a mounting of losses to the tune of Rs 246 crore since then. “The daily revenue dropped from Rs 2.8 crore to Rs 1.9 crore per day following the ticket price drop thus registering a drop in daily income of Rs 80 lakh,” says Sunil Ganacharya, committee member, who has been closely associated with BEST for over two decades.

Looking beyond losses

The BEST has been unable to replenish its fleet size at the rate at which it would have expected. Competition from other forms of transport in the form of Metro and monorail services, as also the share rickshaws and taxis, are eating into their traditional low-income customer base.

Activists — including Vidyadhar Date, convenor of the Amchi Mumbai, Amchi BEST, an forum seeking a stronger public transport system — feel that the motive to do away with the popular double decker buses is to systematically kill the economical, user-friendly public transport service and push people towards the costlier Metro services.

“There is a systematic campaign to deliberately pull down people-friendly initiatives in order to push people towards costlier services like Metro. If there was a strong bus service, why would people go in for the Metro?” asks Date. He points out that the Metro is not popular and sustainable even in cities like Delhi and Lucknow due to their high ticket prices and their inability to provide end to end services, that can be provided only by modes like buses. Despite this, the metro is being unnecessarily subsidized by the state.

“The Metro just cannot make profit. Hence, this argument of high operational costs leading to losses for BEST does not stand. The state has an inherent anti-bus culture and also tends to side more with the car lobby than with the mode of transport used by the common man,” accuses Date. 

“The BEST is just insensitive to the feelings of pride and nostalgia that the citizens of Mumbai associate with double decker buses. If 350-year-old forts of Shivaji and 100-year-old trams can be maintained for historical purposes, then why not these buses? Besides, they could be easily re-invented and repackaged as tourist attractions to generate much higher revenue than what they do today by carrying regular passengers. The problem is that BEST refuses to look beyond its losses,” says Ganacharya. 

A still from the popular movie Shaan. An entire song was shot on a double decker. Courtesy: YouTube

End of an era

Ultimately, it is the common man who tends to bear the brunt of this approach by the administration. For some the probable end of the double decker era  symbolises the loss of a precious relationship, as is the case with like 75-year-old Jennifer Mirza, who has developed a bond over 70 years, since the time that she used to take the first tram service to school. The late-night, last double decker service was a favourite mode of transport, that she enjoyed with her then friend, and later husband, film maker Saeed Mirza. Jennifer does admit using share autos now, on the days that buses don’t come easy, but maintains that BEST remains the most economical mode of transport.

Curtains will also come down on the five open-roof double decker buses – Nilambri – that are now available on rent at the rate of Rs 100 / km along with GST for joy rides, amusement and birthday parties. The BEST also lends two such buses to the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation on weekends for conducting heritage sightseeing trips across the Marine Drive area. 

Now, it remains to be seen if the new CM will step in, as he did in the Aarey case, to stop this popular service from being phased out. Or will the future generations see these double deckers only in photographs of the past?

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