Making buses accessible to all

How have you best experienced your city?

When I recollect, it’s always from that front seat on the top deck of Mumbai’s red double-decker BEST bus number 122, my mainstay during college, with the wind in my face (and sometimes the rain) looking out at the chaotic wonder that was my city. Bus journeys were filled with friendships, including some made while commuting — with books if you sat; with the innate knowledge of recognising how best to arch your body when the bus turned a tricky corner if you stood; and with the comfort that comes from travelling a familiar daily route. You could spot the regulars and the bus conductor was a little less reluctant (or as we say in Bambaiya, “less khadoos”) in giving you change.

Above all, those bus (and also train) rides of my youth is when I first truly tasted freedom. To be on my own in my own city and explore it at my pace in my way, without the gaze of the elders, and at the same time have the familiar comfort of having a bus (or train) at hand to get me in or out of a location, day or late evening, was to me the start of my freedom movement. In fact, almost every Mumbai woman — particularly if she grew up here — has such a story to tell: about the day she started using the city’s buses and trains and how it transformed her everyday life.

Those who think an efficient and trustworthy public transport system is merely a good way of getting commuters to their place of study or work undervalue its true power. Ask generations of Mumbaiwallahs, particularly its working classes and its women, and they will tell you how public transport changed their relationship with the city, making it more accessible and enabling them to exercise more choices about where to study, work, linger or loiter.

Recently #WhyLoiter unearthed some of these stories when it initiated a Twitter campaign (#SaveBEST) urging Mumbaiwallahs to share memories of Mumbai’s iconic red buses, run by the 145-year-old Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST). Some remembered long bus rides with friends and lovers, others buses ploughing through flooded streets. Some women brought up the not-so-great aspects of commuting: facing sexual violence, including groping hands and men pressed up against them, and how they deal with it individually and with the help of conductors and co-passengers.

The campaign was a fun way to reconnect Mumbaikars to BEST buses, their future now seems quite precarious. BEST has slowly been chipping away at their services. It’s scrapped hundreds of old buses and plans to scrap more, but has not replaced them with new ones. All its 259 air-conditioned buses have been off the roads for more than a year. Bus routes are being changed, shortened and shut down. The minimum fare is on the rise and there’s a plan to cut concessions for students and elders. As a result, the daily passenger count has dropped from 43 lakh a decade ago to about 28 lakh. Earlier this year, BEST announced that it would now bring in private contractors to run BEST buses. Citizen activists see this as the final assault on a largely efficient service that once won Mumbaikars bragging rights over Delhiwallahs. The Undertaking’s pressure to privatise has been due to the Municipal Corporation refusing to provide it a grant unless it adopts its ‘reform’ package, the focus of which is privatisation.

As Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST, a citizens for public transport collective, notes, it’s standard practice worldwide and in most Indian cities to subsidise an essential service like public transport in the interests of the whole city. Unfortunately, instead of dedicated bus lanes, Mumbai is focusing on projects like the coastal road project (which the Municipality has already budgeted for) which only encourages private transport.

Mumbai’s red buses have made the city accessible to all. It’s time we spoke up and saved one of the BEST things about the city.

Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 4:38:06 AM |

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