Mumbai, (The Hindu): Employees of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transportation (BEST) went on strike from midnight on Sunday after the last round of talks between them and senior officials failed late evening. “The talks have failed and we are going on strike as of midnight,” union leader Shashank Rao said.
The BEST workers have been locked in a tussle with the BMC over several demands, including funding for their incremental wages and Diwali bonus. On Sunday, their representatives met BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta at the Mayor's Bungalow.
The strike will affect lakhs of commuters, mostly office-goers, on Monday morning as no buses will ply in the city. The public transport burden will fall on local trains, taxis, autorickshaws and app-based cab operators.
Since August 4, some BEST workers have been on a hunger strike at Azad Maidan demanding a bailout package for the public transport utility, which has been in the red since its demerger from the electricity generation and supply division in 2003. The last meeting had been unsuccessful, with the union demanding written assurances that salaries would be paid on the second of every month, while Mr. Mehta said they would be paid on the seventh, eighth and ninth of the month. Workers also sought written assurances for their Diwali bonus and a public declaration on their Dearness Allowance. The union is also demanding that their salaries be brought on par with BMC employees.
Congress leader and BEST committee member Ravi Raja said, “There have been several meetings. We have gone through presentations made by the BEST general manager. We agree with him about the need for cost-cutting.” Rao said, “The law (Municipal Corporation Act) is clear: if BEST’s earns a profit, it as to be transferred to the BMC and vice-versa. Now there is a deficit and the same has to be borne by the BMC.”
Mr. Raja said BEST’s outstanding loan of ?500 crore must be written off immediately. The transport utility had borrowed ?1,600 crore in 2011-12, of which around ?1,000 crore has been repaid. He added that BEST’s revenues go into an escrow account, from where it is routed to the BMC. The civic body makes all other payments before salaries are paid. “There was a transport fund created in the BMC after the Electricity Act came into force, but the BMC is not making a budgetary provision for this.”
Mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar said, “BMC chief Ajoy Mehta and the BEST general manager have agreed to ensure salary payments by the 10th of every month. Union representative Shashank Rao demanded this in writing and said 36,000 BEST workers would otherwise proceed on strike from midnight.” Appealing to the workers to not go on strike, Mr. Mahadeshwar said the assurance of timely salaries would be honoured.
Mr. Mehta said, “The prospect of a separate budget for BEST’s transport section, distinct from the electric supply division, is one thing. We have said that [BMC] will help. However, before the civic body does so there have to be changes. The first change is everybody has to sacrifice.”
He said the process of reorganisation of BEST has to begin at the roots to bring about efficiency. “Labour and management will have to rationalise costs to exclude practices that are beyond industry norms and widely prevalent in the BEST undertaking. Even the Dearness Allowance (DA) is much higher than industry standards, and they are entitled to more subsidies. They are entitled to a canteen allowance, and still enjoy a subsidised canteen. The BEST is the only State-operated establishment where Casual Leave (CL) is encashable. In addition, we have our own hospitals and yet BEST employees are entitled to a medical allowance. At the end of the day, everything has to total up towards the costs of operation.”
Mr. Mehta added, “Lastly, the BEST management has to think of a better pricing mechanism. It is obvious that the short route bus services have to be made cheaper. Air conditioned buses have to be brought back. Bangalore has 1,100 AC bus services. There is no reason that we should have none. The BEST workers have to understand that the strike will not improve their lot. The undertaking has ?1,300 crore in revenue but pays ?1,700 crore in salaries. Will the strike make up the shortfall of ?400 crore? We are trying to make an effort for a solution. Let us take it one step at a time.”
Mr. Raja added, “The BMC wants further privatisation of BEST. Neither the BEST employees nor politicians would be affected as much as the passengers if the strike is not called off. The administration will be answerable for the strike.”
While agreeing with Mr. Mehta on reorientation, he said, “Reorientation of routes can be done, but you cannot cancel a majority of routes without consideration. The BEST’s revenue has gone down from ?46 lakh per day from ticketing services to ?26 lakh now. Alternative transportation avenues have come up. Motorcycles are a way of life in metros today. And with total operational costs pegged at ?2,100 crore, BEST is actually facing a deficit of ?900 crore.”
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