Rich City, Poor Ideas & Gridlocked Mumbai

Mumbai’s civic buses were a source of pride. The acronym, BEST, for the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking, fitted well for a service that stood out among the services of the Mumbai municipality. Even today, seats are rarely if ever torn. Bus conductors return change.  You board and alight only at the designated bus stop. Many Mumbaikars have seen the sight of people boarding the bus at a traffic red light, often to be told by the conductor to get down and board only at the designated stop. Nobody travels on the roof or clinging on to windows though buses can be very crowded and an overfull bus can skip stopping at some halts so that more commuters don’t get on.

In short, the BEST stood as a source of pride for Mumbai. Today, this service faces a crisis. It’s annual losses stand at about Rs.1,000 crore. Questions have been raised on the sustainability and nature of such a public transport system in a day and age when Mumbai faces gridlock. We have more bridges, flyovers and a massive Sea-Link on the Western seafront, with more on the way, but traffic moves slower than ever.

There is no doubt that wasteful expenditure must be cut. But what is emerging from officialspeak in Mumbai is a larger picture of development that fails to recognise that services for the common citizen must form the centerpiece of any public policy and initiative for managing our cities.  In that sense, the lesson from the BEST debate in Mumbai holds out important messages for all of urban India, and the direction of development at the last mile in our cities and towns.

The crisis has exploded into a war of words between activists and the municipal commissioner who heads the corporation, the richest in the country with a budget larger than many State governments. The solution of the commissioner, Ajoy Mehta, mimics the standard prescriptions for cutting losses – which is to cut services, reduce manpower, hire private buses, rationalise routes and fares. It holds the BEST to account for its losses and asks for commitment to work with a plan offered by the corporation.  As the commissioner said, “I would like to reiterate here that all future assistance to BEST shall be based on clearly definable deliverables and improvement of efficiency parameters. All assistance shall be strictly on the capital side.” And he wrote, ”We all realise that public transport has to be subsidised. Nevertheless, the issue is whether you subsidise inefficiency or subsidise public good.”

There is no doubt that wasteful expenditure must be cut. But what is emerging from officialspeak in Mumbai is a larger picture of development that fails to recognise that services for the common citizen must form the centerpiece of any public policy and initiative for managing our cities.  In that sense, the lesson from the BEST debate in Mumbai holds out important messages for all of urban India, and the direction of development at the last mile in our cities and towns.

It is this idea of development that gives a fancy bridge to get into one of India’s best airports, the T2, but infrastructure at railway stations remains poor. Come out of the airport, and those who pay a premium for car parks can walk away into a waiting vehicle while those who want an auto or a bus must walk across a long and inconvenient ramp like path, luggage trolley in hand. The vision is unchanged when the city is ready to support luxury high rises (one complex is said to have multiple towers which will cross 70 floors in the heart of the city, including a Trump Tower to be designed in golden finish!) while a large number live in slums and decent housing remains unaffordable by a majority.

Mumbai does very poorly on all fronts in terms of serving the common citizens. What is highlighted by the debate on buses is also seen in areas like education, where we have five star schools with fees that can run into lakhs of rupees per year occupying important pieces of land while municipal schools languish. Age old schools that have served Mumbai for long years feel forced to play catch-up with the five stars and the culture grows of education systems of a kind that few can afford. It can be seen in our hospitals, where super speciality multistorey structures rise, with fees that cannot be afforded by a majority of Mumbaikars and high costs that mess up with the claims ratio of health insurance companies, which translates to skyrocketing medical insurance premia.  Either way, the common person ends up paying more. The same skewed idea of development can be seen in the drive for high quality roads, like the cable-stayed bridge called the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link (which has become an iconic picture of Mumbai, probably replacing the Gateway of India) while existing roads and the highways carry potholes.

It is this idea of development that gives a fancy bridge to get into one of India’s best airports, the T2, but infrastructure at railway stations remains poor. Come out of the airport, and those who pay a premium for car parks can walk away into a waiting vehicle while those who want an auto or a bus must walk across a long and inconvenient ramp like path, luggage trolley in hand. The vision is unchanged when the city is ready to support luxury high rises (one complex is said to have multiple towers which will cross 70 floors in the heart of the city, including a Trump Tower to be designed in golden finish!) while a large number live in slums and decent housing remains unaffordable by a majority.

The debate on the future of the BEST can and must draw attention and raise questions on the larger direction and narrative on development. This is not to argue that we do not need modern infrastructure but that the only focus of policy must be to keep costs low so that the weakest and poorest can avail everyday services and contribute to growth and do so without getting wiped out personally in the matter.

This is the picture of development that emerges from the approach that looks to glitzy infrastructure for the rich but is unable to focus on the needs and the aspirations of the ordinary citizens who make the city tick, keep its infrastructure running and fuel the working of India’s richest metropolis.

The debate on the future of the BEST can and must draw attention and raise questions on the larger direction and narrative on development. This is not to argue that we do not need modern infrastructure but that the only focus of policy must be to keep costs low so that the weakest and poorest can avail everyday services and contribute to growth and do so without getting wiped out personally in the matter.

In the case of BEST, the worry is that lesser numbers are using the services because roads are jammed and travel on a bus is cumbersome, tiring, not exactly cheap and never gets you on time. A good way to bring back the BEST to its heydays would be to recognise that this is a critical service and merits right of way. Right of way to our civic buses will cut travel time dramatically, inviting many more to take the service and will be a good way to bring back demand. It’s a way to signal that the ordinary people have the right of way, that they come first, and that this is the only way Mumbai can remain the city that recognises and supports the contribution of all sections of society.  And this is a message that can be taken across all of urban India.

We may take ideas and support from the Burj Khalifas of the world but Mumbai is not Dubai and may we not forget that.