Artboard 3 Created with Sketch.

A cursory reading of the transport services in the metros of India would throw up the question—why do Indian cities find it so difficult to run A/C buses

The Brihanmumbai Electricity and Transport (BEST) Undertaking, an autonomous agency of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), which runs the primary public transport body in the city, had announced its decision to suspend all air-conditioned bus services starting 17 April.

The reason being cited is extensive losses on these routes as well as high maintenance costs of the air-conditioned fleet. Of course, this also points out to a deeper rot in the system, one that has consistently raised its head over the last decade to bite BEST.

The story of BEST and it’s A/C buses

India’s oldest public transport body, BEST, has existed since 1905 in its current form and was taken over by the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1947. It was among the earliest transport companies in India to introduce A/C buses for city transit, back in 1998. Originally operating on a handful of routes, mostly during morning and evening peak hours, their main commuter-base was the office-going populace.

The situation changed in 2007 when BEST procured (over three phases under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission- JnNURM) its purple-coloured ‘Chinese Kinglong’ buses.

This was when the problem began. The buses were procured under the tenure of Uttam Khobragade as the General Manager of BEST. Khobragade and his daughter Devyani were both named in the Adarsh Housing Scam, which incidentally stands on a plot originally meant for extension of BEST’s Backbay Depot. It wasn’t until 2011 that it came to light that these buses were neither Chinese, nor were they manufactured by Kinglong. These buses were manufactured in Punjab by JCBL and sold under the Cerita brand. The only connection to Kinglong was a few components within the bus. These buses were extremely underpowered, resulting in frequent breakdowns and sometimes, fire.

The net result? A/C buses gained a bad reputation. Further, with fares on the higher side, the situation was grim.

Around the same time, the Navi Mumbai Municipal Transport (NMMT) and the Thane Municipal Transport (TMT) procured extremely high-powered Volvo buses under JnNURM.

Later, in 2015, BEST had its most disastrous fare revision. Two successive fare hikes, one in February and one in April ensured that it was effectively eliminated from the competition. Due to the high fares and bad buses (a trip from Borivali to Thane in BEST’s AS-707 cost Rs 120 while TMT charged Rs 75 on its AC-65), BEST began curtailing routes. Naturally, NMMT and TMT saw more patronage. In 2016, BEST finally came to its senses and slashed fares by half, reintroduced cancelled routes and introduced the concept of happy hours where fares would be reduced during non-peak hours. The result was evident, it saw a surge in commuters. However, due to the continued under-performance of these buses, BEST started converting a few of them into non-A/C buses.

In order to give a little comparison, let us take a quick look at what the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) did. The BMTC introduced Volvo buses on the roads of Bangalore in 2006. Due to poor patronage and losses on these routes, the government launched a promotion, offering trips at a flat rate of Re 1 in 2008. While the promotion saw buses getting damaged due to high load, it achieved what it had set out to do. Following the promotion, BMTC reduced the minimum fare to Rs 5, and set them in stages of Rs 3. Over the next few years, fares did get revised upward, but the crowds also increased.

Mumbai’s advantage

All said and done, Mumbai has a major advantage over other cities in India. BEST and its competition form a role model for other bus transport companies across the country. There is practically no locality in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) that is not connected by a bus. Further, buses usually operate on short trips, connecting localities to a larger bus station or the nearest railway station.

Maharashtra’s decentralised administration has resulted in municipal bodies operating transport bodies. Thus, the MMR has BEST, TMT, NMMT as well as others such as MBMT in Mira-Bhayendar, VVMT in Vasai-Virar and KDMT in Kalyan-Dombivali.

Barring Pune, all major cities such as Nagpur, Kolhapur, Solapur, Aurangabad, and Ahmednagar have their own municipal transport body. Pune, with two municipal bodies was formerly served by the Pune Municipal Transport and Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Transport, till a 2005 Supreme Court order resulted in the formation of a merged entity. This kind of decentralisation is however, limited to Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

Thus, even if BEST pulls out it’s A/C buses, NMMT and TMT’s services (which have been on a high anyway), will probably fill the marginal vacuum that will be created.

Elsewhere in India …

This wouldn’t be the case anywhere else in India. Of all the large urban agglomerations in India, the MMR is the most decentralised in terms of administration, and at the same time, within a single state. If it were to be compared to the National Capital Region (NCR), or the Chandigarh Tricity, there are major differences.

In the NCR, buses operated by the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), Haryana Roadways (HR) and Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (UPSRTC) criss-cross around the region. However, buses are limited across state borders. Cluster buses operated by the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transport Service (DIMTS) terminate at the Union Territory border. In the Tricity, buses are operated by the Chandigarh Transport Undertaking (CTU), an agency of the Chandigarh UT Administration across the UT and the cities of Panchkula in Haryana and Mohali in Punjab.

If we were to compare Mumbai to any other metro, such as Bengaluru or Chennai, the latter two have only one transport body operating. BMTC in Bengaluru and the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) in Chennai. If BMTC or MTC were to suspend operations of A/C buses, there would be no alternative. Karnataka was among the first states to ban private players like Ola Shuttle and ZipGo.

Private players such as Shuttl, CityFlo and rBus do operate in Mumbai, with some of them acting as feeder services for the Metro. The interesting thing about cities like Bengaluru is that there are plenty of private buses running amok the city, often without permits, but these generally serve villages in the periphery and the central market. These buses, like Delhi’s notorious Blueline buses, often run illegally.

Private participation?

BEST set a benchmark for public-private participation in 2010. A deal was signed between BEST and a private firm Asian Concierge in 2010 wherein the latter would supply the former with 50 Volvo buses in lieu of advertising rights on the buses for 10 years. Of course, only six of those 50 reached the depots, but it still marked a change in the traditional approach to procuring buses.

This kind of private participation is needed for public transport to receive the kind of response from the public that it needs.

So what is the way out?

The one factor that must be kept in mind is that in its defence, BEST has always acted like a private player. The autonomy granted to the body makes it responsible for its own profits and losses. BEST is divided into two divisions, the Electricity Division and the Transport Division. During the 2017-18 financial year, BEST estimated its Electricity surplus at Rs 460.79 crore and Transport deficit at Rs 1026.53 crore. For a long time, BEST has only been running using the electricity surplus that neutralised its transport deficit. This is the reason why it has aggressively curtailed routes, haphazardly increased fares and more.

BEST has only the following options in front of it now if it wants to get back into the game:

One, wallow up in losses, let NMMT and TMT take over the A/C routes.

Two, get back in the game, go after Asian Concierge and get those remaining 46 Volvo buses.

Three, partner up with private aggregators such as ZipGo or CityFlo to allow users to book seats using the apps.

BEST needs to get new buses in order to match up. The image of the purple disaster will haunt them for a long time. If not Volvo, they can go in for other players such as Scania (which is successfully running a biofuel bus in Maharashtra’s winter capital Nagpur), or Ashok Leyland or Tata.

Further, with the NITI Aayog’s plan to pull in a fleet of only electric buses in cities, BEST can learn from its past and look forward to a new future. BEST’s double deckers are expensive to maintain too, but they were retained, mostly because they formed part of the city’s heritage. As far as A/C buses are concerned, partnering with the private sector is something that BEST can certainly do. Learn from the past, and go into the future.

It is really disappointing (both as a commuter and a bus fan) to see India’s financial capital not having proper bus services. One just hopes this is a temporary phase and better buses make an appearance soon.