BEST drivers bring city to sudden halt

High Court orders them to resume services immediately, says can’t hold city to ransom

| Mumbai | Published: April 2, 2014 1:53:21 am
BEST buses parked at the Wadala depot. BEST buses parked at the Wadala depot.

The BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) undertaking’s bus conductors and drivers Tuesday held the city to ransom by taking “mass leave” to protest a computer-based scheduling system to be implemented, which their union alleged, increased duty hours. Barring 41 bus staff members, 9,768 drivers and conductors participated in what is seen as a flash strike.

On a notice of motion filed by the BEST undertaking, the Bombay High Court Tuesday afternoon asked the BEST Workers’ Union to issue a statement by 4.45 pm asking its members to accept their new attendance cards and resume bus services in the city. “The buses have gone off the roads since early morning causing great hardship and virtual chaos in the city,” the court observed. BEST had moved the High Court urging it to restrain the union from asking its members to remain absent from their duty.

An industrial court, hearing a complaint of the union against the revised schedule drawn up by a Canadian firm, had on March 29 vacated a stay on the status quo granted earlier. It also rejected the union’s plea for an interim stay on this order. According to BEST, instead of challenging the industrial court’s order in HC, the union had issued a notice to its members asking them not to accept the new attendance card until they receive a copy of the industrial court order.

BEST’s counsel M P Rao told the High Court that 3,700 buses had stopped plying at 4 am Tuesday, inconveniencing 50 lakh commuters. He added that students trying to reach examination centres had suffered and the undertaking had incurred a loss of over Rs 3 crore. On a regular working day, about 321 bus services ply school children.

Justice N M Jamdar observed that the union had taken its grievances before a court and hence, should pursue it through litigation. “The respondent union cannot suddenly step out of litigation and resort to strike or call from abstaining from duties as a manner of protesting against the order of the industrial court… it cannot hold the city at ransom as a method of challenging a judicial order when it goes against it.”

Irate commuters rued over traffic snarls on social networking websites and complained that autorickshaw and taxi drivers were demanding excessive fares. The Mumbai traffic police booked eight to 10 autorickshaw drivers for refusing fares. The MSRTC ran extra bus services in the city. Major traffic snarls were reported on LBS Road in Kurla, Dharavi junction, Wadala Bhakti Park, Kalina, Lokhandwala in Andheri (West), Powai, Indian Oil junction to Juhu circle and Parel flyover, among others.

Om Prakash Gupta, BEST general manager, said there was no prior intimation of the “mass leave” and he was informed about it at 7am. By afternoon, the administration approached the High Court for relief.

Union leader Shashank Rao said, “We are awaiting the court order before issuing instructions to union members.” Justice Jamdar had, however, clearly stated that all parties should act on the court’s order “without waiting for the copy of the order, keeping in mind the constraint of time”.

On the new scheduling system, Gupta said, “The system to be implemented from April 1 has been worked out following discussion with the union. In the new schedule, only three per cent of the bus staff will have to work 10-12 hours.” As compared to the schedule being followed since March 7, the new schedule has increased the duties in the 6-7 hour, 7-8 hour and 8-9 hour duration and brought down duties that were ranging from 10-12 hours.

In a joint meeting with unions on February 26, the administration had decided on a 13-point agenda regarding working hours that was accepted by BEST Workers’ Union, led by its general secretary Sharad Rao. Some of the parameters included reducing the spread over duties over 10 hours, improving canteen, toilet block and rest facilities for drivers and a permanent joint committee of unions and the administration on the issue of scheduling.

In Kandivali (West), two men allegedly hurled a stone at a BEST bus, shattering its front pane and injuring the driver. Following the incident, zonal deputy commissioner of police Balsingh Rajput said they would provide protection to other buses.

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