Solutions For The BEST

India | Sustainable Development
Blinded by cataract in both his eyes, 20-year-old street dog ‘Biscuit’ had lived beyond his years owing to timely care provided by local Samaritans in Colaba, a South Mumbai district and would have survived even longer. However, on June 4, 2018 when the city was hit by a sudden pre-monsoon spell, he ambled away for shelter, dodging the humans, taxis, motorcyclists rushing helter-skelter.

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Nearby, a large vehicle swerved to dodge a motorcyclist who appeared suddenly in front of it and hit Biscuit. The Indie died almost instantaneously as the vehicle ran over his head, contorting it beyond recognition. On paper, Biscuit’s death qualifies as a ‘natural death’ for a street dog. How else does a street dog die, they say? Is it ‘natural’ or could it have been prevented?

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On 28 July 2015, vegetable vendor Dadarao Bilhore lost his 16-year-old son Prakash to a road accident that occurred because of a pothole. The pothole was covered with water in the rains during which a record number of motorcyclists meet with road accidents. Since then, till date, each time Dadarao sees a pothole, he fills it up with his bare hands. By now, he has filled more than 600 potholes in Mumbai and isn’t stopping. In Mumbai, one person dies to a road accident every 15 hours. The inordinate time taken by ambulances and emergency vehicles to respond, compounded by the apathy of bystanders to help road victims despite there being a Supreme Court directive to do so lead to the deaths of hundreds year after year. India’s financial capital has almost as many cars as London but four times the number of road fatalities earning it the notorious distinction of being India’s Crash Capital.

Prakash was 16 when he died. Last year, he would have voted for the first time among the 10,000-odd first timers in the city. This year, he would have opted for a degree college.

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In 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Mumbai the fourth most populated city in the world, surpassing even Beijing. And, while one would imagine that the surge in population would be proportionate to the supply of public transport, in reality, things are starkly different.

The city’s most vibrant Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) that plies the legendary public transportation service throughout Mumbai is being slowly yet surely phased out of existence to give way to a profitable private sector.

Official data reveals vehicular population in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) increased from 18.42 lakh in 2001 to 79.71 lakh till March 2018.

Concurrently, at its highest, the BEST had 4,700 buses that included 280 air-conditioned ones in 2010 compared to 3,337 in 2018 as it registered a slump of 1,363 or 29 per cent in its resources. Mumbai’s private vehicular population soared from 17.67 lakh in 2010 to 35 lakh in 2018 registering almost a 200 per cent hike. The BEST Bus Service is being elbowed out systematically. Unless the state government, civil society and the people of Mumbai work towards reviving it, BEST Bus Service risk extinction.

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It’s ironic yet true: The very idea of a mass public transport system for Bombay was first offered in 1865 by an American company that applied for a licence to operate a horse-drawn tramway system. Ironic, because USA has - over the years - driven by capitalistic private enterprise, systematically phased out public transportation in favour of private vehicles.

Then, although the licence was granted to the American company, the project never saw the light of the day owing to the economic depression during which Bombay made vast strides in its economy by supplying cotton and textiles to the world market.

The Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST - also known as the Bombay Electric Supply & Transport, its official name until 1995) is a civic transport and electricity provider public body based in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India.

Originally set up in 1873 as a tramway company called ‘Bombay Tramway Company Limited,’ the company set up a captive thermal power station at Wadi bunder in November 1905 to generate electricity for its trams and supply electricity to the city. It re-branded itself to ‘Bombay Electric Supply & Tramways (BEST)’ Company.

In 1926, BEST began operating motor buses and in 1947, became an undertaking of the Municipal Corporation, and re-branded itself to "Bombay Electric Supply & Transport (BEST).

In 1995, with Bombay being renamed Mumbai, the organisation was renamed to ‘Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport (BEST)’ and operates as an autonomous body under the Municipal Corporation.

The quintessential BEST Buses have been an integral part of Mumbai throughout history. When the body decided to drop the double-deckers from its fleet, owing to operational reasons, a surge of public protests forced it to persist with the service. Also, a move to colour the buses saffron from its age-old red, in 1997 drew a lot of flak. The red stayed. The BEST Bus isn’t just about public transportation…it’s about the quality of transportation, the personal touch of its conductors, the sensitivity of the drivers, the empathy of co-passengers and more at affordable prices.

Citizen’s Initiative For The BEST

Sounding a well-meant alarm on the series of 'developments' regarding BEST bus services, is Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST (AMAB), a forum of citizens for public transport. "Contrary to the public stance of the BEST, it appears that there is a planned effort to wind down BEST bus services step by step, so that, in place of the outstanding public transport service it once used to be, we will be left with just the shell of BEST," says AMAB convenor Vidyadhar Date.

Interestingly, the BEST General Manager’s proposed Budget for 2019-20 claims that BEST will raise the total fleet by 713 buses by the end of 2019-20, by relying on 'private contractors'. However, the BMC has not provided a single rupee of grant to the BEST in 2018-19 (as has been the case the previous three years) and the GM has not budgeted for a single rupee of BMC grant in 2019-20. As AMAB points out, the BEST has suspended the issuing of bus passes, on the plea that it is unable to issue smart cards due to the lack of e-ticketing machines.

"The management and the BEST Committee are responsible for the present situation, in which an existing vendor of e-ticketing machines has been removed without a replacement. This has effectively raised the cost of travel for large numbers of low-income regular commuters who rely on passes and concurrently, more and more commuters are leaving BEST," adds Date. Interestingly, over the last year, the BEST has failed to collect Rs 320 crore from builders who were given redevelopment rights for several depots despite the corporation complaining of operational losses.

"The BEST has already discontinued one-fifth of its routes. It has also reduced its fleet by over 900 buses. It has repeatedly raised its fares, far more steeply than the general level of the Consumer Price Index, to the point at which share-taxi and share-auto services become competitive, and has thus lost one-third of its passengers in the space of a few years," maintains AMAB in an official statement.

"All of BEST’s issues, over the recent years have been created by government policy that has single-mindedly encouraged the private automobile sector creating unbearable congestion on roads, lack of investment in upgrading and improving BEST fleet and operations, and repeated fare hikes that have led to a drop in ridership," maintains Date. 

"The real crisis of BEST is the decline of public bus ridership and the ruinous expansion of private transport, which has led to the growth of traffic congestion, pollution and deterioration of public welfare (as those who can least afford it are made to pay more for an essential service, or give it up). Ridership of BEST buses has fallen by a third, from 42 lakh to 28 lakh or even less, in the space of a few years. If we continue on the present path, Mumbai’s public bus system, once the pride of the city, will soon be irrelevant," he adds.

AMAB has listed three key demands from the BMC and the BEST Management to get BEST on track. These include firstly subsidising and operating BEST as part of the BMC Budget. The BMC being the richest municipality in the country, with an accumulated Rs 69,000 crore of fixed deposits, refuses to fund an essential service of the city. BEST bus transport has always received a financial subsidy from the BEST’s electricity division. It must now be subsidised directly by the owner of the whole undertaking, namely, the BMC which should provide for losses caused by BEST’s unplanned fleet expansion of 2006-10 by writing off its ‘loans’ to BEST, and paying off the other borrowings BEST has had to make in the recent period. This will clear the backlog and help BEST start with a clean slate.

Secondly, BMC should set aside its privatization-cum-fare hike plan and consult with unions, urban affairs experts, transport experts and people’s organizations to formulate a plan for revival of public transport, including BEST. Increasing public transport ridership, for the health of the city, should be taken as the primary criterion on the basis of which to judge performance. AMAB maintains that the BMC must introduce bus priority lanes on all arterial and link roads in the city. This will reduce road space for cars, distribute road space more equitably, and make buses more efficient. The civic body must introduce appropriate parking fees to create an income stream for BEST, and tax private automobiles for the multiple costs they impose on the city in terms of road maintenance, congestion, and pollution. Also, the BMC should scrap the unsustainable, expensive and regressive Coastal Road project and, instead, allocate the Rs 1,500 crore for that project to support and improve the BEST.

Thirdly, every attempt must be made to make BEST affordable and accessible. Mumbai’s bus transport is already too expensive in relation to the incomes of its users which has led to a fall in bus ridership.

To make BEST as a public transport more affordable for students, the price of student passes must be reduced along with an increase in short-distance buses on feeder routes to train stations. Traffic must be regulated at train stations to ensure buses get priority. 

AMAB maintains that BMC and BEST stop the discontinuation of routes. The BEST must be run with the spirit and commitment of a public service, and must be operated even on so-called ‘unprofitable’ routes.

During the 2005 Mumbai floods, when the city’s lifeline - the train service came to a screeching halt with the rail lines inundated with the rainwater, the BEST Bus Service - the city’s second lifeline came to the city’s rescue. All the stranded passengers were dropped safely to their respective destinations despite 900 buses being damaged in the bargain and the death of more than a 1,000 persons. BEST plied 109 extra buses and lived up to the reputation of being Mumbai’s second lifeline.

“It was a scary situation and I thought I’d never reach home ” recalls entrepreneur Firoz Merchant. “With the train service called off indefinitely and the roads filled with chest-deep waters, it was a scary situation,” says Firoz who vouches for BEST Bus Service’s performance.

“It was then that the city’s most-complained-about public bus service came to its people’s rescue and in good time. I recall on that fateful July 26th night while commuting by the BEST Bus, the driver didn’t have a mobile and had borrowed mine to call his wife and inform her that he was stuck and would be late,” maintains Firoz who took a good 8 hours to reach home. But, reach he did, unlike thousand others who just didn’t make it…alive!

“Since then, till date, each time it rains a little more than usual, I dump the train and take the bus instead. I know that the trains may stop due to the rains but the BEST Bus won’t,” he says with a distinct sense of pride.

That said, Mumbai hasn’t learned vital lessons from indicators that point to the inevitable. The city seems set to phase out the one and only public short-distance, pan-city transportation mode available. Mumbai’s recent deplorable rise to the top of the list of world’s polluter cities, beating even Delhi, can be attributed to a 400 per cent rise in vehicular traffic in the city since 2001. Mumbai’s priorities are shifting, much on the lines of Delhi, in favour of private transport.

There is a price a nation pays for growth and ‘development.’ The rise in income, accessibility to loans and a desire to ‘own’ a vehicle are triggers. So, the number of privately-owned vehicles is on the rise in Mumbai and it’s only when one is stuck in traffic while commuting to and from work that realises the futility of ‘owning’ a vehicle. With the rise in number of vehicles has increased the congestion and a concurrent slump in the average traffic speed.

Although more than 88 per cent of commuters in Mumbai use public transport, the city having the largest organised bus transport network among major Indian cities, moves to privatise segments of the BEST by introducing ‘wet leasing’ to boost profitability were resisted only by a handful of persons that too affiliated to workers’ organisations.

There are protests, albeit few in numbers, demanding stalling discontinuation of routes, subsidising and operating BEST Buses as a part of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), introduction of bus priority lanes on all arterial and link roads in the city and a reduction of fares for the three shortest distances to ₹ 4, ₹ 6, and ₹ 8.

In Mumbai, the public transport service hasn’t been an enterprise but an essential service and must be treated in a manner such. That said, the state government or the civic authorities that head the cash-rich Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, contrary to popular view, feel otherwise and couldn’t care less either. Instead of being operated by a public entity in the interest of the public and run on public money, the BEST Bus Service is being pitted against private entities. The corporation, while looking to maximise profits even with the BEST Bus Service, fails to recognise that the users of these services are citizens, not consumers.

“You simply cannot be looking to make a profit with the BEST Buses. It is a service for the poorest of poor who cannot afford to own a car or use a private transport service such as Ola or Uber,” says octogenarian and retired government employee Mrs Suman D, who yet avails a bus whenever she has to “travel from Colaba to Babulnath Temple every Monday to offer obeisance to Lord Shiva.” And Suman, finds most of her friends - from all age groups - catching up with all the gossip ranging from politics to the weather - all in the BEST Bus No 123 as it meanders along the Queen’s Necklace before reaching Chowpatty and, finally, the Temple.

“Throughout my life, I’ve never seen a BEST Bus driver lose his cool despite all the road rage and chaos triggered by private vehicles and two-wheelers that break every traffic rule in the book and beyond,” she says. “And, why would I stop using a service that is so affordable and so civil to me unlike private services offered by Kali Peelis and Ubers whose drivers are outright uncouth,” adds Suman.

“It is an ordeal trying to walk on the roads today in Mumbai,” says Suman who suffered a nasty fall last year due to a motorcyclist hitting her while overtaking a parked taxi after a fiery argument with its driver. “Nobody has the time or patience in this city, any longer,” she says. “Each time, I have to walk to a nearby public garden, a few lanes away from my home, I dread stepping out on the road. It’s just a matter of time before someone hits me again,” maintains Suman who has now begun carrying a bright-red umbrella with her each time she steps out to ensure that, while on the road, “she doesn’t fall on someone’s blind spot.”

Today, the BEST Bus Service’s fleet transverse the metropolis and operate in Thane and Navi Mumbai districts too. The second-largest mode of transport in Mumbai after local trains transports about 28 lakh persons every day, down from the 41.9 lakh persons that would commute by BEST buses in 1997-98.

Putting forward its people’s plan for BEST, an Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST movement, has included demands for subsidised public transport, accessibility and affordability, dis-incentivising private transport, and accountability and consultation in the decision-making process. Today, a total of 785 BEST buses are detained in depots every day owing to a staff shortage. Worse still, 112 routes have been suspended and 95 trips cancelled since August 2017, increasing the gap between buses on a route. Also, 230 air-conditioned buses have been ‘retired” since April 2017.

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, India’s richest municipal body, does not subsidise BEST. It instead furthers loans to BEST, charging it interest thereby crippling it even further. The issues for BEST workers range from reduced wages, lack of bonuses and increasing contractual employment for workers, whose numbers are dwindling.

Today, even as more people use private transport instead of public transport, there could be ingenious ways to subsidise the BEST Bus Service. For one, the money earned from parking could be used to subsidise BEST Buses, offer activists.

UberBOAT Is A Costly Alternative

Offering an alternative to the state ferry service from Mumbai to Mandwa on mainland Maharashtra, Uber, in partnership with Maharashtra Maritime Board, launched the UberBOAT service - a six-seater speedboat which could be booked by riders before boarding calling it a ‘game-changer’ for Mumbai. A ferry journey from Gateway of India to Mandwa jetty or Elephanta Island is expected to be complete within about 20 minutes as compared to ferries that take nearly an hour. Uber plans to introduce services from Navi Mumbai too in the future to slash down the travel time from the few hours in a local train to less than half an hour by sea.

Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) chairman Sanjay Bhatia announced that “MbPT aims to create a world-class infrastructure for water transport and sea tourism that will make Mumbai the country’s hub for sea transport and tourism.”

That the price for the one-way six-seater trip is Rs 5,700 @ Rs 950 per one-way trip per person and Rs 1,900 for a two-way trip may not be within reach of locals is swiftly lost on the authorities with convenient disdain. “How many people who commute on a daily basis for work can afford the trip?” says Mandwa local Vishnu Koli from Saral, who commutes through a local ferry service daily from Bhaucha Dhakka in Mumbai @ Rs 70 each way.

The Elephanta Island Ferry Issue

For about 80-odd ferries, plying between Gateway of India and Elephanta Island on a daily basis, the laws regarding their safety are in place but only on paper. While the law strictly prohibits travel on the top deck of the passenger boats, owing to issues of balance and risks during plying, in reality the law is broken flagrantly and in acute disdain by them all. "Why, even despite the tickets to Elephanta Island clearly maintaining that travelling on the top deck of a boat is prohibited, all the boats permit you to travel on the top deck and charge each passenger an extra fee of Rs 10 for it," says Graphic designer and Elephanta regular Mayank Joshi.

In 2015, a ferry boat capsized near Elephanta Island putting the spotlight once again on the violation of safety rules. Despite a maximum limit of 100- 150 persons on passenger boats, each boat carries not less than 200 persons, almost as a rule, with about a 80-odd tourists on the top deck risking life and limb of all. All boats are registered with the fishery department and there are no set of legal norms that can be applied directly. The department can, at best, revoke a boat-owner’s licence or cut the diesel subsidy, but cannot prosecute a violator. For that, the Coast Guard or local police has to act.

And, the local police are busy checking the bags carried by visitors to The Gateway of India anticipating a terror attack since 2008, till date. That the actual risk to life and limb may arise at sea, on the passenger boats flouting the law, or through a terror attack 'from' the sea, as was the case in 2008 when the terrorists arrived by sea from Pakistan, is lost on the police.

A ferry boat from Mumbai’s Gateway of India to Elephanta Island costs Rs 150 for a return trip for an adult. The sea of tourists visiting Elephanta Island, arriving from interiors of India even rural India, travel by this mode. The UberBOAT that plies from Mumbai to Elephanta Island or Raigad costs Rs 950 per person per one-way trip translating into a pricey Rs 1,900 for a return trip for an adult and a completely unviable option for the masses.

It would be simply out of reach for a middle-class family complete with elderly in-laws, parents, grand-parents and children. The UberBOAT is an exclusive service for a privileged few, by the very nature of the economics involved, and not a substitute for the modest ferry boat available to the masses.

Coastal Road For The Rich?

Meanwhile, on the much-touted Coastal Road in Mumbai, the Bombay High Court continued a stay on the construction work of the proposed project till 3 June 2019 and asked the authorities to maintain a ‘status quo.’ Meanwhile, the state government has been hugely optimistic the proposed road will boost the creation of several central business districts (CBDs) in and around the corridor.
Protesters maintain the coastal road is primarily being constructed for private cars and will benefit only the rich and not the masses. “The majority in the city use public transport and the BMC should focus on the BEST bus service instead of pandering to the affluent,” says 23-year-old law student Ayushi Kapde at a protest meet held near Worli recently.

“The BMC must work on ways to improve the existing infrastructure. The city’s most famed bus service - the BEST Bus Service is breaking down financially with the buses plying half empty all the time adding to the losses,” she says.

At this point of time, focusing on a coastal road project mired with so much controversy and risk to environment makes little sense.

The authorities maintain the road will open avenues for many investment and housing opportunities as more land will be unlocked for real estate developments. It (the coastal road) will link the Ahmedabad Highway via Mira Bhayender Road. The micro-markets such as Mira Road, Bhayandar, Bandra, Versova and others, are most likely to see good results.

But, when that happens, it will, but till then, the fears of a sell-out to private giants continue to loom large in the minds of the city’s denizens. “Forget coastal roads and all, there’s no place for people to even move about in this city,” spews home-maker Freny Baldiwala who finds it an ordeal to “even cross the road,” at a busy Kalbadevi intersection in South Mumbai. “Why would you want to increase the load on the infrastructure by building more and more? Also, with regard to the coastal road, why doesn’t the government wait for the Metro 3 project to be complete before embarking on a new one,” she adds.

Meanwhile, the BMC has also embarked upon a Rs 12,000-crore coastal road project that involves reclaiming land from the sea to build an eight-lane, 9.97-km highway from Marine Lines to the Worli end of Bandra-Worli Sea Link, to connect South Mumbai to the western suburbs. There are plans on taking over the existing two-km promenade and building a new 6.4 km-long, 20-metre-wide one on reclaimed land instead.

Finally, A Pedestrian-Only Zone

After years of excessive barricading in and around the world heritage site the Gateway of India, following the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai that left the zone garrisoned beyond recognition, the authorities decided to make the Gateway of India stretch right from Regal Circle to Radio Club - the city's first 'Only Pedestrian' zone. This comes as a huge relief to the millions of tourists who have been dodging parked vehicles, traffic, flowerpots, barricades and you-name-it all in the guise of 'security'.

For a historic structure visited by lakhs of tourists every year, the transportation options are few and far beyond. For one, to reach the structure, a tourist has to depend heavily on share-a-taxi services plying from Churchgate Station and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CST) or BEST buses dropping them to a spot about 100 metres away. The public are left with little choice but to walk to the destination.

Here, falls in place, the decision to make the Gateway Stretch - the city's first 'Only Pedestrian' zone is a victory for common man who has successfully reclaimed his Right To Walk in Mumbai's most prized locality.

The idea of having a dedicated ‘pedestrian lane’ is to “create more space for tourists, women and children on the sea front.” So, although visitors to the monument will be screened where the pedestrian zone begins, vehicles headed to the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower will be given a dedicated lane.

Incidentally, the city’s prized tourist attraction has already witnessed two devastating terrorist attacks. In August 2003, a taxi bomb had claimed eight lives and then later in August 2005, a Manipuri, Ngakuimi Raleng and friend Leishichon Shaiza were stabbed at the Gateway of India in front of several bystanders.

A few years later, in November 2008, Lashkar E Toiba terrorists stormed the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower killing 31 people in a three-day siege.

These incidents formed the basis, however debatable, for the spurt in security in and around the zone. Although Mumbai has a sprinkling of terror-hit zones all over, no other place has earned such heightened security bringing into focus the element of arbitrariness in police action.

However, on an experimental basis, one lane of the road between Taj Mahal Palace & Tower and the Radio Club is now thrown open as a pedestrian path on Sundays and public holidays.

Locals are more than exhilarated with the decision and, rightly so too. Over the years, it has become impossible to walk around the Gateway of India. Barricades were placed at every possible spot around the zone. Right from generating ‘make-shift footpaths for pedestrians’ to ‘dividers to bifurcate’ the road and ‘control vehicles’, the use of barricades has been arbitrary and quite excessive. Worse still is the high-handed behaviour of the police authorities in the vicinity who behave like a law unto themselves.

The public, as usual, is at the receiving end of the high-handed arbitrariness of the authorities. Public transport available by way of BEST buses from CST and Churchgate to the Gateway of India. These, however, are rendered useless owing to the tendency of the service provider to wait endlessly for full occupancy before plying. So, passengers opt for a share-a-taxi service available at a fixed rate of Rs 10 per person, the same as that of the BEST Bus service.

And then, there are private players such as Uber, Ola and Private Cars plying regularly to the heritage site putting the pedestrian at direct risk and the common at sea when it comes to availing public transport. “It’s an ordeal now visiting the Gateway of India,” feels Pune-based telecom employee Maitrayee Joshi. “Dodging so many share-a-taxi drivers who bully tourists into availing their service is a pain. The traffic cops look the other way and seem least bothered about the mess that affects tourists directly,” she says. Also, in the absence of any proper laid-down rules for parking or movement, it’s a virtual free for all at the Gateway of India.

An armoured security vehicle stands parked for good opposite the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower on a footpath supposedly ‘meant for pedestrians’ and an unofficial ‘pigeon-feeding zone’ eked out of the open space with barricades keeps those who feed the pigeons, themselves, out of the way.

The creation and control of barricaded zones left to the discretion of the local police continue to thwart public movement and affect public transportation drastically leaving tourists scrounging for passage.

The world over, tourist zones are hit by terror owing to the dint of their very nature yet recover and soon. Look at the 9/11 spot in New York City, for instance. The terror-hit venue has been converted into a beautiful memorial for those who lost their lives in the catastrophe.

Ten years after the attacks on September 11th 2001, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum was thrown open. While entry to the 9/11 Memorial is free for the public, entry to the musum is by fee and needs to be booked at least six months in advance. The names of every person who died in the terrorist attacks of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001 are inscribed in bronze around the twin memorial pools.

Concurrently, the Gateway of India that wasn't affected by the 26/11 terror attack - the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower that stands opposite the Gateway of India was targetted by the Lashkar E Taiba terrorists, was barricaded intensively and public transport censored in arbitrary bits and pieces to create a mess.

The onus of the mess in public transportation created in and around Mumbai's prizest tourist zone, The Gateway of India, lies squarely on the Maharashtra government, the city's police force, the BMC and transport corporation, Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC).

Need To Pull BEST Out Of The Red

“As an alternative model to help subsidise BEST, private cars parked on roads should be charged according to the real estate rates of the area and the funds used for the purpose,” offers transport expert Vidyadhar Date.

The vehicular pollution that wreaks havoc for Mumbai isn’t brought under control by the state government which has yet to bring private aggregator cabs under its city taxi norms. It’s only when that happens that private aggregator cabs would have to mandatorily use CNG as fuel to reduce pollution. The number of private aggregator cabs operating without CNG is phenomenal leading to a corresponding, unfettered surge in pollution levels too.

Incidentally, between April 2017 and January 2018, when the Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) performed surprise checks of 14,788 taxis 4,328 of them were found faulty. The licences of 1,294 drivers and 1,024 vehicle licences were suspended and the state collected Rs 68.72 lakh in fines and recovered Rs 15.62 lakh worth of fines imposed by the courts.

Prior to that period, between 2013 and March 2017, on the basis of complains lodged by passengers, 5,719 show-cause notices were issued. In all, 4,203 vehicle licences and 4,431 drivers' licences were suspended and fines worth Rs 83.42 lakh were recovered.

Amidst all this chaos perpetrated by private vehicles and aggregator cabs, it’s the city’s lifeline, the trains, which plies 2,300 services every day transporting 7.5 million people daily and annually 2.2 billion passengers - a third of the world’s population and all without adding to the air pollution.

Battling Stress To De-stress At The Park

Mumbai’s existence would be impossible without its green lungs - the Aarey Colony and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali - the only national park within a city in the whole world. Sadly, it’s near impossible to visit these without losing hair or worse still, one’s sanity.

A trip to the green zone spells meandering through the maze of private cars of all shapes and sizes to aggregator cabs equipped with GPS with food delivery riders zipping in and out of long lines, cutting lanes at will in traffic moving at snail’s pace, guaranteed to pile on the stress. Public transportation to this zone is almost rendered to naught. A bus trip takes eons to complete leaving the trains as the only best option available. Driving down to the zone in one’s private car or vehicle is asking for trouble.

However, in recent time, a proposed Metro Car Shed’s arrival at Aarey Colony has posed a threat to the very existence of the green zone. Compounded with that are fires that rage regularly at the Colony, sparking ‘fears of sabotage’ and attempts to ‘rid the zone’s trees’, underlining popular fears.

Today, Mumbaikars spend a good chunk of their day travelling through Metro-III construction zones to reach their workplace and back in their private vehicles mostly two-wheelers as travelling by a BEST bus - the best public transport available - is out of question. “You’d take till forever to move, if stuck, in a bus,” says SGNP regular and photographer Vineet Khanna.

“After a few trips to the park in a bus, that went on for hours on end leaving me with no time at my destination, I have given up on public transport. I prefer plying till here on my two-wheeler,” adds Vineet, echoing the sentiment of most Mumbaikars commuting along the congested zone.

Arbitrary Parking Rules Create Mess

In public zones, public transport is mostly controlled by the police who create a larger mess than warranted. It’s the arbitrary placement of Barricades and ‘No Parking’ Signs that triggers most of the traffic mess.

A walk along South Bombay’s tourism spots near Gateway of India, Churchgate, Metro and Nariman Point reveal the apathy of the traffic police who place barricades in pre-determined formats during Nakabandis to prevent smooth passage of vehicles in order to stop them for mandatory checks at a predetermined time during the day and/or night. Once the Nakabandi ends, the police shift the barricades to one side of the road and move away from the spot only to arrive the next day for another Nakabandi.

Now, while the barricades lie on one side of the road, piled and almost in a state of disarray, BEST buses simply cannot pass through without dodging them slowly triggering a traffic jam almost regularly. To compound matters are the Olas and Ubers driven by drivers who constantly keep viewing directions on a map app in a mobile placed in a holder next to the steering wheel. In the age of e-technology, and one that’s growing slower than the ever-burgeoning demand, applications struggle to keep at pace with the need and aggregator cab drivers are left with little option but to wait for ‘updates’ and slow down, thereby delaying traffic even further.

Legally, using a mobile while driving is an offence but viewing one attached to the deck or while driving isn’t. The traffic police are hugely oblivious to this single-most dangerous trigger for vehicular accidents.

That apart, No-Parking signs are used with random disregard for the law by shopkeepers keen on keeping ‘entrances to their shops’ free and open at all times. So, it isn’t rare to find No-Parking signages propped up at odd place and without any legal sanction by the police who look the other way.

“So, while the shopkeeper places a No-Parking sign on a tree opposite his shop and fights with all and sundry, throwing expletive and threats that he would get the cops to impound any parked vehicle, the local traffic police just don’t show up. And then, once a vehicle is parked, the shopkeeper’s staff physically pick it up and place it in a nearby No-Parking zone and then tip off the towing van personnel who promptly arrive and haul the vehicle to the nearest traffic police chowkey charging the owner with the parking in a No Parking zone offence,” says advertising professional Pierre Gonzalves who has “had several fights with shopkeepers” on this issue.

“To argue with the police is a different issue altogether,” says Pierre, “but this sort of racket is rife across old Mumbai where, owing to the number of vehicles, parking is a huge issue.”

Besides No-Parking signs being placed on trees, poles, against shops, attached to stone flower-pots by all and sundry to prevent private vehicles from being parked, the traffic police themselves place their vehicles bang below No-Parking signs with stark disregard for the law.

Issue Of Hawkers

With regard to the hawker situation in Mumbai, in March 2018, only 23,265 hawkers were found eligible for licensing in Mumbai. And these were from a total of 96,655 applications that arrived for regularisation. In all, an estimated two lakh hawkers operate on Mumbai's roads, adding to the traffic mess so typical of Mumbai. BEST buses simply cannot move in zones that are peppered with obstinate hawkers. South Central Mumbai that comprises zones such as Dadar, Lalbaug and Parel even in the suburbs such Andheri, Ghatkopar, Malad and Kandivali's interior roads are choc-a-block with hawkers, mostly illegal yet a sizeable portion enjoy local political patronage or simply pay regular haftas thereby persisting with their activities, albeit illicit, with impudence.

It may be recalled that it was the Elphinstone Road Station stampede in 2017 that led to 23 people BEING killed and 59 others injured. Then, opposition parties and the Shiv Sena, an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in the state demanded illegal hawkers be removed from stations to ease commuters’ movement. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's workers even roughed up illegal hawkers on bridges for a while before they returned, as usual. Then, the Removal of Encroachment Department of BMC had demarcated a line outside the station to ensure hawkers adhere to the High Court order of not setting up a kiosk within 150 metre radius of the station. That apart, it has been was observed that hawkers almost always returned to their original spots within a few months of eviction. Hawkers, on their part, allege they were not allotted any space despite being eligible for it.

Taxis, Rickshaws Ply On Whim

It was always considered uber to flag down a taxi or an autorickshaw if you were in a hurry in Mumbai. Taxis were cool, fast and friendly modes of transport. That is till they turned boorish, rude and outright obnoxious in their attitudes towards the commuter. So, what had been, for years, considered public transport for those pressed for time and rushed, turned into a sort of pricey service that couldn’t be depended upon.

“If he fancies, he’ll stop or else he’ll drive on ignoring you completely,” says baker M Tanaaz who stays at Versova and has faced inordinate trouble while dealing with autorickshaw drivers hugely reluctant to transport passengers for ‘short distances’.

So, each time Tanaaz visited her friends in ‘town’ and had to travel back late, she would call a taxi-driver ‘known to her father’ and one who wouldn’t refuse to ply her back home to Versova. This went on for years till the arrival of the aggregator cab which could be booked through an app on her mobile phone. “Life is so much more convenient now,” says Tanaaz. Travelling by Uber isn’t without its own share of worries. A few Uber drivers aren’t exactly polite or decent for which Tanaaz has a “Safety App,” to handle inadvertent situations.

“I travel by train from Churchgate Railway Station in town to Andheri Railway Station in the Western suburb - a distance of about 30 kms in 35-40 minutes but take almost three hours to reach Versova - a distance of about 20 kms from Andheri Railway Station while travelling by road,” says Tanaaz. “It gets crazy travelling by public transportation in the stretch owing to the awry mismanagement of hawkers in the zone,” she adds. “Also, the existing overhead Metro line that plies the Metro trains from the Western suburb, Andheri to Ghatkopar in the East is a delight to travel by but for the traffic on the road below, it’s bumper-to-bumper movement,” she says.

The overhead metro has actually slashed travel time from three hours to a swift 25-30 minutes but transport for the public below the overhead Metro line has become an ordeal. BEST buses have to dodge the sea of illegal hawkers who have literally hijacked public space and held commuters and the entire city to ransom.

Taxi-drivers are a notorious lot. They simply refuse to ply to short distances even do not allow passengers to board their vehicles and ask them their destination before stopping their vehicles. And, in contrast have arrived the aggregator cabs that can be called from one’s mobile and ply anywhere at will and can even be shared.

So now, frustrated with taxis that (refuse to) ply in South Mumbai and the autorickshaws that (refuse to) ply in the suburbs, the Mumbaikar has been left with little option but avail the aggregator cabs through an app, considering for every Kaali Peeli there are three aggregator cabs.

Public transportation is at risk of complete breakdown in Mumbai. With the citizen complying silently with the aggressive privatisation of transport even giving up access to public zones, there’s little by way of hope. The BEST Buses may well be relegated to the city’s poignant past captured on celluloid by the Hindi film industry. Things do not need to remain the same. For that the state government will need to take the initiative and help bail out BEST, now on its last lap, clear the traffic mess threatening to engulf the city and hawker menace emboldened by political backing. The laws on traffic must be followed in letter and spirit to ensure that the city’s public transportation remains within reach and of preference for the common man. And that, to call for an Uber or use one’s private vehicle should remain an option…and not one of choice.

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This report has been prepared for DraftCraft International’s flagship initiative The Public Space Project in conjunction with its pilot endeavours - The Right To Walk Project, The Gateway of India Project and The Elephanta Island Project to research, analyse and determine the rights of the common man, the pedestrian, the tourist and the rights of the masses availing public transportation in contrast to those privileged few owning private vehicles. The initiative examines laws and policies regarding transport, access to public spaces and privacy guaranteed to all by the State in context of the Right To Equality, Freedoms and the Right to Life.