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BEST bus. Wikimedia
  • The BEST bus represents the mobility plans for middle classes in Mumbai
  • It is not just the locals but for migrants to Mumbai, the BEST bus is an icon
  • Represented in movies, people have been using these vehicles for commute since decades

Mumbai, August 09, 2017: Mumbai’s most iconic vehicle since the past many decades has been the double-decker bus. The BEST bus is by the Bombay Electric Supply and Transport Company. The B was changed to Brihanmumbai in the year 1995.

When artist Sudarshan Shetty was just a schoolboy, he would often tell people his experience of sitting in the upper level of his “red Cadillac”, the red double decker bus.

In the 1950s, author Kiran Nagarkar rode the BEST bus when it had lettered routes in the form of A, B, and C. Today, BEST bus and routes use the number system. Nagarkar said that the double-deckers were “marvelous, especially if you had a girlfriend.”

While today Metros rule the urban city, it is the BEST bus that has represented Mumbai’s romance as well as struggle. In the movie ‘Choti Si Baat’ by Basu Chatterjee, it was in the double-decker where Vidya Sinha was wooed by Amol Palekar.

Palekar made his mark on Bollywood fraternity in the 1970s, the period when mega families were ruling the screens. He once stated, “Until Rajnigandha, a Hindi film hero was someone who had never traveled by local transport and never worked in an office.” The BEST bus, however, changed this common script.

The BEST bus was spotted in the song Jaanu Mere Jaan ki Shaan (1980) by an American blogger studying the patterns of Indian Cinema, Beth Watkins. She observes, “Putting a song in literal motion is a fun strategy. The women on the bus have some power as the audience for the men’s song because they’re sitting on the upper level. The bus isn’t moving any faster than the men’s bicycle, and by the end, the heroes take control of the bus and, thus, the romantic pursuit.”

Further, the bus has been iconically showcased in movies such as Ardh Satya (1983), Muqaddar Ka Sikander (1978) and more recently Ghajini (2008) and OK Kanmani (2015).

The BEST bus also helped in moving away from regional differences. Migrants to Mumbai felt closest to the city when they rode in the “red Cadillacs”. The bus conveyed that everyone is in it together. In Ravan and Eddie, a class novel by Nagarkar here is an extract from the opening chapter, “Parvati’s son bounced excitedly in her arms. Yes yes yes, he wanted to play with Victor, see the dog scratch himself, watch the game of kabaddi, get on to a double-decker bus and sit at the very front with the wind in his eyes and hair. He stretched out his arms and leaped.”

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The bus leveled people from all walks of life. It also assured the immigrants that dreams are turned into reality in the city of Mumbai. Everyone here gets the opportunity. Students & teachers, leftists, and rightists, boss and subordinate, everybody rode together.

The executive chairman of the ICICI Bank, M K Sharma, often takes the red bus even today. He says, “It connects me with the common man, and has offered me invaluable insights. It starts the conversation.”

The BEST bus reminds Rustam Antia, an electrical consultant now aged 64, of his school days. “The school had commissioned BEST to run as school buses for us, and it was the only place where both boys and girls, who then attended separate buildings, mingled.”

The famous actor of the country, Mithun Chakraborty, also rode in BEST buses, more particularly the number 85 to Dadar station. Veteran Om Puri and the classic Naseeruddin Shah also rode in the red buses during their struggling years as an actor.

Interestingly, Om Puri was shocked to see that BEST conductors stood all day. In Delhi, the conductors always took to a specific seat.

ALSO READ: Indian Railways Are No More Popular Mode of Transport in India

Sunil Dutt was employed in BEST’s supply department and worked as a “shop recorder” while Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi, comedian stage name being Johnny Walker, amused passengers by working as a conductor. Here is Walker expressing his memories in the BEST newsletter Varta, “I remember well, I began my work at the Dadar depot in 1942. In the beginning, my badge number was 16. It would change to 1266. My first salary was Rs 40. But expenses were not so high, so we lived a good life on this…. There was admirable discipline in BEST. Whether our uniforms were up to the mark or not, would be checked…”

While writing the script of the famous movie Baazi (1951), Balraj Sahni, he commuted with BEST bus to the film shoots.

For all these years of service, the discipline of the staff has always been consistent. The drivers and conductors are trained at the Dindoshi Centre. Not drinking and doing duty, chewing paan, body odor and torn buttons are pointed out to reform. It also includes responding effectively to a complaint of harassment by women. However, the well-lit interior of the bus ensures women safety to a great extent.


The BEST double decker. Wikimedia

There are ladies first buses where women get the priority of boarding. There is a total of 500 routes covered by 3,800 buses and served by 41,000 staff members.

The buses with an open roof on the upper deck have been spotted in various parades. In the parade that celebrated P V Sindhu’s 2016 Olympic medal and the public party after winning 2007 T20 World Cup, the BEST open upper deck buses were a charm.

But the BEST buses have had their sorrows. As a representative of the middle class, these vehicles have suffered. They have been burnt and received beatings from stones during protests and social movements. Even in terror attacks, the buses have faced the brunt.

But BEST, as of today, is dismantling. The bad coaches and miscalculated finances clearly imply that. Nagarkar rightly points out that, “It takes a special kind of insanity to invest in a coastal road which will be used by less than 2.5 per cent of the population while refusing to invest in the transport used by the 95 per cent, the rest of us. Why should it die?”

BEST has a budget deficit of Rs. 590 crores. Buses are being sold and the routes are being reduced. In February, BEST failed to pay salaries to its employees. The Electricity Act that came out in 2003 snatches the company’s electrical arm for working, a post which the conditions deteriorated. None of the routes are profitable.

Moreover, the new cab services with mobile applications have worsened the chances of a possible comeback by BEST. Also, the BMC does not subsidize BEST.

It would be right to say that BEST is fighting for its survival.

“Almost the entire population depends on the local trains that are run by the Central government. The only rightful public transport that Mumbai can call its own is the BEST buses. They are there when the trains are down, in a crisis or (during) festivals. They run at their own pace and are not always efficient, but they are always there. BEST will continue to remain the city’s own and rightful public transport, till the Metro network run by the state government comes into place,” said Transport Historian and Author Rajendra Aklekar.

But the majority says that it is BEST that has to adapt and change. The Anik Depot’s BEST Museum rarely has any visitors on a given day.

Sudhir Badami, an Urban Analyst, strongly believes that the BEST buses can bounce back and be profitable. “If they are allowed to have a dedicated bus lane, that could help them deliver faster services. The BEST could also try to introduce a ₹25 ticket for 24 hours that could be used across the board and generate estimated revenue of ₹2,250 crore per annum and be close to breaking even at today’s traffic of 28 lakh passengers per day.”

– Prepared by Saksham Narula of NewsGram. Twitter: @Saksham2394


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