When Mumbai’s lifeline, the suburban train services were abruptly halted on March 24th, as the country went into a lockdown that would stretch for weeks, the city’s public bus service, BEST, rose to the occassion to single-handedly keep the city running. At the height of the COVID lockdown, BEST buses were the only transport available in the city, transporting essential services workers to their work places and back.
BEST ran special services to ferry COVID warriors to hospitals, banks and other essential locations. With most of Mumbai’s municipal, health and other essential service workers living in distant suburbs, and some in neighbouring districts, BEST extended its services to the city’s satellite townships.
For the first time, BEST buses were sent to places like Nalasopara, Kalyan and even Palghar, almost 80 kms away. It operated feeder routes from important points. The entire bus was sanitised after every trip. Care was also taken to allow only 23 sitting and four standing passengers per bus to ensure social distancing.
With all other modes of transport off the streets, BEST maintained its service, albeit in curtailed capacity. Not surprisingly, reports started trickling in about crowds thronging these buses though they were meant only for essential service workers. “Please remember, it was only a few services on a few routes and only for a few people,” says Manoj Varade, the Deputy Public Relations Officer of BEST.
Soon after, workers’ unions started expressing their fears about operating services under pandemic conditions, as reports of COVID-positive cases were reported among staff on duty. Videos of workers protesting in small groups in BEST depots against services being run under such risky circumstances started going viral.
“BEST has a tradition of working through any crisis, be it bomb blasts, riots, floods, and now through the pandemic,” said Shashank Rao, general secretary of the BEST Workers Union. “And though the lockdown restrictions have been eased, they continue to work risking their lives”.
Drivers, conductors and other staff have accused the BEST management of “irresponsible, unsympathetic and high-handed behaviour towards its workers. Initially, BEST refused to provide masks or sanitisers and it took much persistence to get them to do that,” added Rao. “BEST’s own medical officer shot down our demand for masks in April stating that only symptomatic patients need masks. Even now, masks are provided only as a token and most staffers purchase their own masks and gloves as they come in touch with thousands of passengers per day.”
Rao also said that insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh meant for frontline COVID workers was initially denied to BEST workers on the grounds that they were not frontline warriors. “We had to fight with the state to get them the insurance cover. Around May 17th, when about 120 people had tested positive and 17 people had died, the BEST administration kept saying that only eight people had died.
“Our information is that about 74 staffers have died of COVID, yet the BEST toll refuses to move beyond 8. It’s very unfair that the families of those who suffered while providing services right through COVID, are being denied their rightful compensation and rights,” says Rao.
To date, the BEST management has refused to reveal the fatality rate among their staff from the virus. The general manager stays incommunicado and BEST’s public relations department too is barred from divulging details, except for information on number of buses, trips and passengers ferried per day.
“Many BEST workers contracted COVID while off duty and not necessarily during work,” argued PRO Varade. “Also, many had health issues like asthma and diabetes, about which they had not informed the management. As on June 24th, about 575 BEST staffers got COVID, of whom 435 have recovered. This was primarily due to timely awareness campaigns and preventive efforts like distribution of masks, sanitisers and multi-vitamin tablets.”
Penalising the staff
As the number of COVID cases among the BEST fold kept rising, a number of workers stayed away from work due to anxiety and fear of infection. BEST nevertheless kept its services going, with those who did report for duty. It also converted 72 of its mini-buses as ambulances to enable the city to make up for the shortage of ambulances.
As lockdown was being eased in phases, long serpentine queues were witnessed in distant suburbs as BEST remained the only source of transport.
The Union government refused to heed Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s repeated pleas to start suburban rail services to ferry essential services workers and government employees, and the union railway ministry continued to treat Mumbai’s suburban network like any other rail service in the country, failing to grasp its unique role in Mumbai.
When rail services were finally started in a very limited manner and only for essential workers after 84 days, BEST finally halted its outstation services and opened regular services for all public. In the initial ten days, from June 15-28, the railways ferried just 66,993 passengers, a far cry from the 78 lakh passengers it would ferry daily during pre-COVID times.
This was also when the BEST management decided to get tough with its staff who were unable or unwilling to report for duty during the lockdown. Soon after train services started, BEST served charge sheets to over 3000 of its 37,000 workers for absenteeism during the lockdown period. Security staff were sent with notices to BEST quarters and residence of staffers, and notices were stuck on their doors.
Most of those chargesheeted responded and joined duty prompted by fears of losing jobs. But 18 workers who failed to respond to the charge sheet were terminated. Workers’ unions say they have been unable to challenge the termination in court, with labour courts being closed due to the lockdown.
“Most BEST staffers stay far away from the city, how can BEST expect them to report for duty without providing travel facilities for them, since trains weren’t working,” asked Ravi Raja, leader of the opposition in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. “BEST has played an extraordinary role during the COVID crisis to keep the city running. In such circumstances, how fair is it for the BEST management to deal with its workers in such a high-handed way and charge sheet almost 10% of its workforce?”
Unlike railway staff, BEST conductors and drivers face more risk as they come in close contact with hundreds of passengers. Conductors continue to issue paper tickets and handle cash. Also, though train services have begun, BEST services continue to be the sole operator in many areas since trains are plying only on a few routes and don’t stop at all stations.
Also, with train services still restricted to bonafide essential workers with proper IDs, workers in non-essential sectors and offices are completely dependent on BEST for travelling to and from work. Though there are rules for staggered sitting with a few standing passengers, some conductors let in more passengers, feeling sympathetic looking at the huge rush at bus stops.
Though rickshaws and taxis have been allowed as part of the state’s Mission Begin Again, for most Mumbaikars, BEST remains the only affordable option, especially for long distance journeys.
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82% of the city’s workers are dependent on its public transport for their daily commute.
51% use the rail network
26% ride on BEST services
– Report by the Mumbai Vikas Samiti
“It’s unfair to target the poor drivers and conductors,” says veteran trade union leader and senior BEST committee member, Sunil Ganacharya. “Most workers are sole earners in their family. The apprehensions of their family members who did not want them to go to work is understandable. Does BEST even care to admit how many employees it lost to COVID-19? Why have they stopped giving the death toll once it crossed eight deaths?”
BEST had also not paid the salaries of over 15,000 absent employees before the charge sheeting process to coerce them back to work, added Rao.
BEST Workers’ Union has demanded a dedicated BEST hospital to treat symptomatic workers and quarantine facilities within depots.
COVID also exposed the fault lines in the city’s transport network as it did in so many other sectors like public health and infrastructure. “The lack of city planning was highlighted during the COVID pandemic,” said Sunil Ganacharya. “Earlier, industries and government ensured homes for their workers close to their place of work. Now, with both the government and the private sector ignoring housing needs of their workers, people are forced to travel long distances for work and this problem has been amplified by the COVID crisis.”
Reliable public transport is also crucial to revive the city’s economy. In these unprecedented times, it is critical that the city treats its essential workers, especially those who served the city well during the worst days of a crisis, with care and concern.