It’s the day of Raksha Bandhan, it also marks the day of mass BEST bus strike. Siblings and cousins might just have to face a few obstacles to get to that sacred thread.
One can expect more than the usual overcrowded trains, auto and cab shortage, with nearly 3,800 buses of Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport undertaking (BEST) going off the roads on Monday. This will cause inconvenience to 30 lakh odd commuters, who use the service daily.
The BEST Sanyukta Kamgar Kriti Samiti, a joint action committee of all its labour unions, stayed firm on its decision of an indefinite strike by its 36,000 employees on Sunday because of non-payment of salaries in the past three months.
This, despite efforts by BEST management, civic commissioner Ajoy Mehta and the ruling Shiv Sena leaders, including party chief Uddhav Thackeray, to reason with the committee late into the night.
The strike is likely to overburden trains, which is where the majority of BEST’s 30 lakh daily commuters are expected to shift. Autos and ‘kaali-peeli’ taxis will be similarly affected.
To make matters worse, app-based private cabs like Ola, Uber and the like are likely to get more expensive and especially the strike comes on the day of Raksha Bandhan, when demand for public transport is higher.
This committee ironically includes BEST Kamgar Sanghatana, the labour wing of the Sena in BEST, and the BEST Parivahan Kamgar Sangh, which is affiliated to the BJP. This raises questions on political duplicity of both the ruling party in the civic body and the ruling party in the state government in holding the city to ransom. It also points to larger politics with the saffron parties trying to blame the other for the crisis.
The strike had already started at a few depots on Sunday night. Workers at the Dindoshi depot did not refuel buses that were meant to run in the early hours. Also, those slated for late-night engineering duty did not turn up. By 10 at night on Sunday, unions activists asked members to not report on duty affecting late-night bus services. The committee had said unless the BMC civic commissioner gives them a written assurance of taking the entire responsibility of BEST, the strike would not be called off.
“We do not trust the BMC commissioner and hence there is no question of calling off the strike until Mehta gives a written assurance of taking our responsibility,” said Union leader Shashank Rao.
The unions have demanded BMC pay BEST employees in the first week of every month, refrain from curtailing salaries and allowances of employees as a part of cost-cutting measures, avoid wet lease (lease buses with drivers) of both AC and non-AC buses, besides helping fund the purchase of new buses.
In retaliation, the BEST undertaking warned action against the striking employees and the government has applied the Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act (MESMA). For commuters, the state government has allowed private vehicles such as buses, tempos, trucks to ferry passengers till the time the strike gets called off.
The School Bus Owners Association, a body of school bus operators in the city, has also offered rides on their members’ buses to commuters for just Rs20 for every 10km from railway stations, on the request of transport department.
The day saw quick developments with mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar holding several meetings to ward off the strike, including one with chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, BMC commissioner Ajoy Mehta and BEST general manager Surendra Bagde.
But, the efforts were in vain. The unions began their agitation with a chain hunger strike at Wadala depot on August 1 and threatened an indefinite strike. Thackeray has called a meeting of both the joint action committee of unions again on Monday to resolve the issue. It is likely he will talk to Fadnavis to bring about some compromise.
Union leader also warned that other unions, including the auto rickshaw union, will participate in the strike, if needed. But sources said it is less likely to happen and the union is just using pressure tactics.
BEST Workers’ Union leader Shashank Rao said, “Workers are agitated. You will not find a single bus on the road.”