Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) is one of the world’s largest metro transport corporation. It is managed by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and caters to the needs of more than 30 lakh commuters every day. On 12th February 2018, the BEST management committee announced its decision to hire 200 mini non-AC buses, 200 mini-AC buses and 50 midi-buses on wet lease from private contractors. Under this type of arrangement, buses are leased from private contractors along with driver and are also maintained by the contractor.
The BEST Sanyukta Kamgar Kriti Samiti (BSKKS), the joint action committee of the BEST labour unions, declared that all workers will go on an indefinite strike from 15th February 2018 to oppose the administration’s decision. BEST workers have been opposing this move of the management since the last 2 years. They had struck work on the same issue last year. The workers have pointed out that the wet leasing is the first step towards the privatization of the BEST on which millions of Mumbai citizens depend for transport.
On receiving the strike notice, the BEST management immediately approached the industrial court which issued an urgent interim order barring the BEST workers from going on strike till the next hearing which is scheduled on 5 March. This time, however, due to the unity of workers and support they are getting from people of Mumbai, the industrial court has directed the BEST administration not to sign any agreement with the contractors for hiring of the buses till the next hearing.
In the meantime, the BEST management is putting pressure on workers in various ways. It is trying to split their unity by claiming that one of their unions is supporting the management decision to wet lease a fleet of buses.
Workers are also protesting a delay in payment of salaries of January 2018 till 12th February, though after last year’s strike the BEST management had promised that salary for each month would be paid before 10th of the next month.
The BMC which is one of the richest municipalities in the country with around Rs 69,000 crore of fixed deposits in banks, has declared that it will not help BEST financially any further and therefore has not provided any grant for the BEST bus services in their budget for 2018-19. The BMC Commissioner has been demanding that the BEST first implement his unilateral demands or ‘reform package’ that includes: (i) increase in fares, (ii) reduction of routes, (iii) partial privatisation (wet-leasing), (iv) reduction of workers’ emoluments (through freeze of D.A., cancellation of medical allowance, cancellation of welfare schemes for workers, etc.). MEL condemns these tactics of the BEST and BMC management.
Whenever the BEST or BMC workers declare their resolve to go on strike for their legitimate demands, the BMC management runs to the courts that intervene and prevent the workers from striking by using an argument that “theirs is an essential service”. Yet when it comes to providing funds for improving the same “essential service”, it declares it does not have funds!
It is the prime responsibility of the government and its bodies to ensure that all essential services of good quality and at affordable prices are made available to each and every citizen of the country. But, the government and its bodies at all levels, from the Central government to Municipal corporations / Zilla parishad, have started evaluating all public services like water supply, transport, education, health services, etc. on the basis of whether they are generating profits or not.
All the unions of workers and organizations of working people must challenge this anti-people approach to the provision of essential services to people. They must build unity with the users of these services – workers and toilers - and together with them demand that the government its bodies fulfill their primary responsibility towards citizens.