The Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking’s wage bill will rise by 33 per cent if all demands raised by the striking BEST workers’ unions are to be met. BEST workers are currently on their longest ever strike, set to enter its fifth day on Saturday.
With a fleet of 3,337 buses, the BEST, which is also the second largest mode of public transport in Mumbai, employs around 39,000 people. It pays Rs 135 crore a month towards their salaries and wages — an annual wage bill of Rs 1,620 crore.
The BEST Kamgaar Samyukta Kriti Samiti, a collective outfit representing the striking employees, is primarily seeking a revision in wages of senior staff, gratuity to former employees, revision of the pay grade of 14,000-odd employees recruited since 2007 and bonus payments.
Sources said the loss-making undertaking’s salary bill will rise by another Rs 540 crore if all these demands are accepted.
In contrast, the average monthly income from the BEST’s transport wing is around Rs 80 crore. The BEST also spends Rs 22 crore on an average towards monthly diesel consumption. With the transport undertaking suffering a monthly loss of Rs 77 crore, the unions have been demanding that the BMC, India’s richest municipality, absorb the additional financial burden. Their demand is that the BMC’s budget be merged with that of the BEST.
But despite the state government stepping in to resolve the crisis, the municipal administration is firm that it cannot bear such a huge burden. A chief secretary-led committee of bureaucrats is scheduled to meet the union representatives to discuss their demands on Saturday.
Sources said that the administration will push the wet leasing services to be initiated in Mumbai as an immediate reform for improving the operational efficiency of the road transport service. While the BMC had called tenders for wet leasing of 450 new mini and midi buses to add to the BEST’s fleet last year, BEST unions had challenged the move in court. The matter is currently sub judice.
Another option being studied is to bring down the salary bill by cutting down on some of the allowances being offered at present. Sources said this is unlikely to be accepted by the union representatives.
The political leadership and the civic administration, meanwhile, is not in favour of the third option, which is to increase the bus fare. According to calculations by the BEST administration, the minimum ticket fare would have to be raised from Rs 8 at present to Rs 12 to meet the additional demands.
In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha and state polls, both the BJP and the Shiv Sena are not in favour of this option. During discussions with union leaders on Thursday, sources said that even Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta had indicated that the civic administration was not in favour of raising fares, as this would hit ridership numbers. While the union representatives have been discussing the option of privatising BEST-owned land, the BMC is strongly opposed to this.