A reassuring victory

BEST strike is a morale booster for the trade union movement

Credit : Nimesh Dave, Mid Day

Thousands of workers of the bus transport wing of  BEST (Bombay Electric Supply and Transport) undertaking in Mumbai have scored a heroic victory with a nine-day strike in January. The victory was gained amidst stiff opposition from section of the bureaucracy and the ruling Shiv Sena party in the municipal corporation which controls BEST.

The success is a morale booster for the entire trade union movement .

The strike by workers, many of  them getting only subsistence wages, showed great unity of workers, even Shiv Sena union members joined the strike. The strike-led by the socialist oriented young Shashank Rao, received strong support from a sympathetic public and other trade unions.

The trade union movement has been weakened in the last decades due to the closure of hundreds of industrial units with their lands grabbed for fancy commercial development projects. So it is after a long time that we have a positive development.

The municipal administration, with rich resources,  has behaved incompetently, unprofessionally in dealing with the strike and  for years neglected the bus undertaking which had a pride of place in the entire country for its efficient functioning.

This strike is a wake up call for the entire working people of this country, they must now rally for the cause of public transport which is important for poverty alleviation, reducing road congestion and pollution. It is important for their survival. The people must see through the design of the ruling elite which wants to impose privatization of transport with high fares. There is also a design to sell the space of bus depots and staff quarters of workers spread over several  acres in the metropolis.

The issues go beyond a wage dispute between the workers and the management.

A good road public transport system is important among others things for poverty reduction, as stated by the World Bank,  as also for the environment, for reducing congestion and pollution. We must first of all breathe fresh air and public transport is vital for that.

Our politicians, bureaucrats and planners must realise that the world is changing. Western democracies are increasingly giving high priority to public road transport, walking, cycling with special lanes for buses, cycles. We must stop surrendering to the motor car lobby.

There has to be a strong people’s movement now for  public transport. There is an old demand from economists and planners that corporates, employers should bear the burden of transport expenses for employees because employers benefit from public transport used by employees. In a way public transport is subsiding rich industries. Corporates need to pay back a debt to public

The ruling establishment in Mumbai is playing a very dirty game which the people must defeat.  If people had woken up during the textile mill crisis, the government would not have dared hand over huge areas of mill land to the corrupt and parasitical rich. That has been a big loss to the working people of this country.

The most glaring loss of mill land is right opposite Shiv Sena Bhavan at Dadar in Mumbai. A huge tower has been built on the land of the nationalized NTC  Kohinoor mill. But it now looks like an abandoned site, there are no takers for it for the past few years for the property developed by the son of former chief minister and former Lok Sabha speaker, Manohar Joshi, of the Shiv Sena. It is a colossal financial failure but what is worse, it has robbed the people of what would have been a wonderful public space if it had been allotted for that purpose in a city starved of  public spaces.

Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST (AMAB), a citizen’s forum for public transport, has congratulated the BEST workers and their families for their determined struggle, culminating in a partial victory of great significance for all the citizens of Mumbai. It is now necessary for the citizens at large to persist with the issues brought forward by the strike, and ensure that they are properly resolved to ensure a healthy and adequate public transport system for the city.

1. It is appalling that half the workers of the transport division, who play such a critical role in the life of the city, are being paid wages well below the minimum needed for a dignified existence. The Municipal Commissioner has been repeatedy claiming that the workers of BEST are being pampered and overpaid. The strike has exposed this falsehood and compelled the unwilling authorities to take some steps for the removal of this grave wrong. A decent public transport system is incompatible with the super-exploitation of those who run it.

2. The central demand of the BEST workers is in fact also a demand of the general public: namely, that the BEST budget be merged with the BMC Budget. In other words, it is the responsibility of the BMC to fund the city’s public transport system and ensure adequate supply as well as affordability. The public transport system should be run not for profit, but as an essential public service, like hospitals, schools, water supply, sewerage and garbage disposal. Not only has the BEST Committee already passed a resolution in favour of merger, but the ruling party in BMC has long paid lip service to such a merger.

However, the Municipal Commissioner and the state government have put up stiff resistance to this elementary demand. Clearly, they do not acknowledge public transport to be a basic right of citizens, and they are planning to wind down the BEST. The belligerent declaration of the Municipal Commissioner at the height of the strike that he intends to privatise bus operations (the so-called ‘wet-leasing’ scheme) and shrink services should ring alarm bells for the general public. Indeed, the strike brought home to Mumbaikars once again the fact that BEST plays an indispensable role in the city’s life, one which needs to be enhanced, not wound down.

3. The authorities made strenuous efforts to paint the BEST workers as villains holding the city to ransom, and sections of the media played a negative role in this respect. The aim was to pit citizens against workers. One such piece of pure propaganda was the BEST management’s claim that, if the demands of the workers were conceded, fares would have to rise by 50 per cent. This is nonsense. Further, once BEST’s budget is merged with BMC’s, any rise in BEST workers’ wages does not automatically result in a BEST fare hike, any more than it would in the case of public hospitals or public schools.

4. It is heartening that, despite the authorities’ propaganda, the general public by and large did not blame the workers. Instead, people correctly blamed the BMC, the ruling party in the BMC, and the state government for their hardships. AMAB did its best to place the facts and its perspective before the general public, and received a positive reception. It will be necessary to build on the potential unity between the workers in public transport and the citizens in order to address the burning problems of public transport.

While some of the demands raised by the strike have been sent for mediation, that in no way prevents the government from addressing them right away. Hence the general public must keep pressing these and related demands, in order to get a safe, speedy, adequate, comfortable and efficient public transport system. In particular, AMAB will keep struggling for its demands, namely:

1) Fund and operate BEST as part of the BMC Budget. Earlier BEST’s electricity department bridged the deficits of the transport division, now BMC must do so.

2) Improve public transport, discourage private cars. Give BEST right of way, particularly on arterial and link roads. Reduce traffic congestion by taxing car ownership/use and collecting adequate parking fees from private vehicles on public roads. Scrap white elephant mega-projects designed to serve private car owners, such as the Coastal Road project. . The state government must provide BEST tax concessions/compensation for taxes.

3) Reduce bus fares drastically and draw back commuters to BEST. Trade union resistance  and public transport are both very essential ingredients of democracy. Peter Drucker, the widely acclaimed management expert, strongly supported the concept of democracy at the work place arguing that authoritiarian and hierarchical  management would become dysfunctional. Public transport sustains democracy in a major way as it constantly brings together people of different strata of society, increased social bonding, better communication between citizens and it  very important for the poor.

On the other hand, people travelling by car or  motor cycles tend to become very individualist, disconnected from society. This is substantiated by various studies.

Another point that needs to be noted  in the BEST context is this. Though the strike received  massive public support, there were a few establishment lovers who were critical of the unions.  They blamed the unions for the inconvenience to citizens. This is a very shoddy way of looking at things.

These elements do not realise that  there are two sides, the managements  are much more responsible for strikes, they have not taken adequate measures.  Simply blaming unions would be utterly wrong.