Sporadic bus workers’ strikes could continue, so what is BEST doing?

With regular strikes from BEST workers in the city, fundamental issues remain unresolved by the civic body. Activists claim a push to privatisation.

Flash strikes have plagued Mumbai’s public buses at least five times in the past three years, since private buses were introduced in the Brihanmumbai Electric and Supply Transport (BEST) fleet in 2019. Two strikes by BEST workers happened in Mumbai Central bus and Magathane bus depots on April 2nd and 26th, 2021. This year, Kurla depot saw no buses turn out on April 22nd, 2022 and for three consecutive days on May 17th-21st, 2022. Similar strikes happened on July 17th-18th at Vikhroli, Wadala, Bandra and Kurla depots. After the strikes, the workers were cajoled and convinced or were paid (overdue) salaries to return to their jobs. 

However, the basic issue remains unresolved and continues to erupt now and then. About 30 lakh Mumbaikars depend on the city’s public transportation network, making sporadic strikes a real concern for the smooth movement of citizens. 

The tensions between private contract employees and private contract firms contracted by BEST are over issues of low salaries and delays in payment of salaries as well as about the failure of the contractor to remit their contributions towards their provident funds. Contracted workers plying the wet-leased buses, wherein private companies provide their buses with manpower, complain of low salaries, bad working conditions, such as failure to adhere to rest hours between trips, lack of identity cards and pay slips and lack of quality buses to ply on.

Currently, 1749 private wet-leased buses, wherein private companies provide their own buses with manpower, ply in the Mumbai public transportation network in addition to the 1864 buses of the BEST’s total 3613 buses. The private contract buses have reached such large numbers that as of now they constitute 48.4 of the total fleet. This is as per information provided by the Sangharsh Kamgar Karmachari Union (SKKU), a union of contract employees since BEST failed to provide the numbers. According to SKKU, BEST continues to have about 24,628 employees including 9000 drivers. A BEST spokesperson said they have no information about the number of employees hired by their contracted firms. 

Increasing competition between the six contracted firms has resulted in drivers switching jobs from one firm to another in search of better prospects. It affects services in the depots serviced by those firms, say sources.

What is the state of the workers?

Most of the drivers working on BEST wet-leased buses were working with school buses earlier. Most of them joined private wet-leased buses, lured by the prospect of a regular job. They hoped that they would be absorbed as permanent employees in the private firms that took them on contracts.

“Now we are stuck with irregular jobs and salaries. We are unable to pay our regular payments or children’s fees on time because salaries are not paid on time. Since they do not give us our pay slips, we are unable to apply for any kind of loan. Though we have been working for over 240 days, we have not been regularised,” says Raju Sule, a private driver.

Raju also shares that they have to continue as temporary workers indefinitely without even a basic appointment letter to show. Threats of termination of services are common if they raise their voices against such unfair labour practices. “Thankfully my wife’s earnings as a vegetable seller keep our family going, otherwise, it can be very difficult for families to sustain themselves on such irregular pay,” he says.

Read more: Schools in Mumbai reopen, but school bus owners struggle to get back to work

The workers also allege that many employees are put on BEST services without adequate training or knowledge of the routes on which they have to ply. Many drivers also complain of deductions in salaries for issues such as damage to side mirrors or even scratches from other vehicles on their buses.

“Many of the buses I plied on had bad side mirrors so that it was difficult to see bikes veering around. It resulted in scratches for which deductions were made from my salaries. The accounts team maintains a proper list of deductions to be made from us, in case of any kind of damage to the bus – be it Rs 200 for damage to a side mirror, Rs 2500 for damage to side glasses or Rs 5000 for damage in the windshield and so on,” says a worker, who wished to remain anonymous, fearing legal trouble.

a bus seat in a BEST bus, supported by a paver block
A bus drivers seat supported by a paver block. Contract workers complain of shoddy quality of private BEST buses. Pic:  Sangharsh Kamgar Karmachari Union

Many claimed that the standard of some of these contracted buses is so bad, that it could compromise the quality of public transportation in the city. Often buses break down due to bad maintenance and are towed away to local garages for repairs. In contrast, the BEST has its garages, where its buses are repaired and are also regularly serviced.  

How did BEST introduce privatisation in its services?

In 2019, owing to huge losses, the BEST introduced privatisation in its transportation division by getting buses on wet lease from five firms namely M.P Patil group (275 buses), The Daga group (500), Tata Motors Ltd (355) Hansa City bus (275), Mateshwari Urban Transport (400) and Olectra (46), according to Jagnarayan Gupta, secretary of the SKKU. 

These firms are allocated routes only in specific depots and allowed to park their buses and use facilities in those depots. 

As per the BEST’s contract with the Best Workers Union, the only recognised union, the BEST is required to maintain a fleet size of 3337 buses. 

“Huge losses were cited as an excuse to get private buses into the BEST fleet. Though the transport division deficit has shown a marginal shift from Rs 2349.74 crores in 2020-21 to Rs 2110 crores in 2022-23, one must understand that this is despite the huge aid of Rs 4300 crores from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The BEST has already stopped buying new buses and is making up for its old and scrapped buses by getting more and more buses on wet lease,” says Hussain Indorewala, a professor of Architecture and co-convener of Aamchi Mumbai, Aamchi BEST, an advocacy group working to protect public transportation in Mumbai. 

The newly introduced electric single and double-decker buses into the BEST fleet are all being brought on a wet lease basis. The BEST plans to get 2100 more electric buses along with 900 double-decker electric buses and wants to have a fully electric bus fleet by 2027.

Though the BEST had insisted that the privately contracted workers would be paid well, the reality is that the private employees are paid almost half of the salaries paid to official BEST employees. While a new driver of BEST gets about Rs 30,000 per month, a contract worker receives only about Rs 15,000 per month or even less at times, points out Gupta. 

Is BEST responsible for these workers?

Currently, the system works in such a way that while the drivers of the wet buses are private contracted ones, the conductors continue to be the employees of the BEST. Union members like Gupta allege that while private drivers are hired on low salaries by the BEST through these five contracted firms, BEST’s official drivers are being put up on allied duties like supervising the buses at the depots or guiding the passengers, which is gross under-utilisation of their skills.

The BEST administration has refused to intervene in the issue and restricted itself to penalising the contractors for their failure to provide bus services during the strike. “During the strike, we had penalised Rs 5000 for every bus that fails to turn up on duty on a particular day and diverted our buses on those routes to reduce inconveniencing passengers,” says Manoj Varade, spokesperson of the BEST. 

In an affidavit to a case filed by the SKKU in the Industrial Court, BEST submitted that the contract was entered by the employees with their particular firms and the BEST had no role to play in it. It also stated that the contracted firms have to submit a report about their depositions in the PF accounts of employees every month.

While BEST says it is not responsible for their pay, the employees say that they are very much responsible legally since they are the primary employers and they ultimately work for them. Shashank Rao, general secretary of the Best Workers Union stated that since BEST was the principal employer of the contract workers as per the provisions of the Contract Labourers Act, 1970, it was responsible to ensure that these workers were granted their salaries and dues on time. Rao also contended that since these employees provided the same services as the regular employees of the BEST, they were entitled to receive the same payments and benefits as them.

Activists like Rao see this pattern of the BEST shirking its responsibilities as a long-term strategy to entirely privatise the BEST and sell off its huge land resources.

“The BEST owns huge land parcels to the tune of almost 106.27 hectares in Mumbai. Apparently, they had already got a property monetisation assessment done to cover up their deficit. Few depots have already been taken up for commercial development and introducing private Pay-n-Park service is just the beginning,” says Indorewala. The real purpose also seems to be to convert BEST into a subsidiary to the Metro services as “an affordable, reliable BEST network could keep people off the Metro”, he says.

Three years ago, when BEST was pushing for privatisation of its services, it had cited huge losses as one of the primary reasons. Despite about 48.4% of its fleet of buses running on a wet lease basis, the BEST continues to run on huge losses. However, the most significant challenge is depleting quality of services and reliability in Mumbai’s public transportation services that was once the hallmark of BEST. 

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