Thirty Years Ago
I still owe the BEST a tidy sum of money. A regular tram-rider in my student days, I used, even in my second year in college, to travel on a pink half-ticket to save a half-anna whenever the conductor was gullible enough to believe I was underage. That was in the thirties, well before the Undertaking was municipalised, fifty years ago.
Much later, but before the Kemp's Corner flyover came up, BEST got a bit of its own back. An ancient double-decker I took to go to Worli refused to climb Cumballa Hill. It spluttered and stalled at each try. Male passengers were made to alight and walk up the hill. Only then could the feeble engine haul a half-empty bus up Pedder Road (as it then was). We followed on foot, offering loud encouragement and cheers, until bus and passengers reached the crest of the hill and we could board it again. I wrote to Mr. Ghate, then the General Manager, to ask whether he had even more mulish buses which passengers might have to push before they would move. Little did I suspect that less than five years later similar impertinences might be flung at me.
The fleet was old, and even more infirm when I took over. Many buses were always off the road, sick. Only about 70 per cent of the fleet emerged from the depots on any day, and breakdowns were frequent. The Undertaking was suffering heavy losses because its owners, the BMC, would not agree to raise fares to meet costs. Bills of the order of Rs. 80 lakhs had piled up, unpaid, and daily losses were about Rs. 35,000 even after the profits from the electricity side. These were enormous figures at that time.
The job was bewilderingly complex. I found a 15-hour work day too short, and wondered whether I had passed my level of competence. How I envied a predecessor, who had headed the organisation just a few years earlier. I was a Secretariat officer during the Chinese war, and needed to meet the GM urgently. The State government was planning a program to train drivers for the army, and we thought the BEST could help. Repeated telephone calls got the same answer from the GM's secretary: "Sir is in a meeting. He can't be disturbed." That continued all afternoon. When I got home that evening my wife, who had gone to a movie at the Regal, told me she had spotted the BEST GM there!
Clearly, he had learnt to manage, or mismanage, his work far more efficiently than I could.
In contrast, I needed to bury myself in the minutiae of management, without the luxury of "meetings" at the Regal cinema. Fortunately, my task was eased by the excellent reporting system that much earlier GMs had devised. There had also been a detailed study of Bombay's bus service by an ILO expert. The Mitchell report, buried by my predecessors, gave me diagnosis and prescriptions for the ailments of the transport side.
And ailments abounded. The low level of fleet utilisation, slipshod maintenance, a shortage of spare parts, specially for the older buses, the operation of utterly uneconomical bus routes, very low fares, labour indiscipline and featherbedding these were only a few of the problems that cried out for solution. Not all of them were real, though. The spare parts famine story, for instance, was regularly trotted out, and too easily believed by the media and the public; the Government of India had, after all, been niggardly in permitting imports of spares, so here was a handy alibi for neglect of sound maintenance practice and inefficient store procurement.
I once discovered an urgent purchase order, for a connecting rod, I believe. It was supplier Sunderlal (name changed) who got the order, for supply in three weeks. A full year later the supply was still awaited. The urgency had become extreme, so the Stores department decided on an immediate purchase, to be made without competition, at Sunderlal s risk and cost, so that if a higher price resulted, Sunderlal would have to pay the difference. Who got the new order? You guessed it; it was Sunderlal.
The spares alibi eventually disappeared, partly because the Controller of Stores moved on to an area in which his activities could not be as destructive. But also because engineers paid to supervise maintenance at last began to supervise. And finally because of an incentive scheme for maintenance staff, drivers (and conductors too) that gave workers handsome additions to pay for good performance. Fleet utilisation rose to 90 per cent, changing the economics of operation quite considerably. I learn that erstwhile GM Manmohan Singh later took the figure to 97 per cent. We need to applaud his efforts.
Oddly enough, the labour union rejected the incentive scheme because it had not been "taken into confidence", whatever that hackneyed cliche may mean. The scheme was introduced nevertheless. The bonuses offered proved too attractive for the workers to heed their leaders. I believe it is still in operation, still effective.
In the early sixties, led by an ebullient George Fernandes, the union had grown overly turbulent, repeatedly shutting down operations in one depot or another on the slightest of pretexts. Unknowing passengers would stand awaiting buses for hours. The Undertaking's reputation sank lower each time. Management's response to such sudden stoppages was seldom firm. It would plead with the union leaders, and ultimately accept compromises that recoiled on operations adversely. One of these was a so-called Accident Prevention Committee at each depot, with driver members who did not drive but could and did veto the operation of individual buses as the fancy took them.
Labour turbulence, and George Fernandes' exuberance after his election victory over S K Patil, led eventually to a strike, which Fernandes made the mistake of calling just before pay day. After an enormous struggle the BEST had succeeded in hiking bus fares to reduce the losses in bus operation. The new fares promised to raise revenues by Rs. 2.5 crores. (Would that be Rs. 20 crores, or more, today?) Within two weeks Fernandes, who had strenuously fought the fare rise in the Corporation debate, was in my office with fresh demands that would cost the Undertaking Rs. 4 crores, more than wiping out the gains from the fare rise. After desultory negotiation Fernandes suddenly called a strike, the moment he won the Supreme Court case on S K Patil's election petition.
Each day of the strike the Undertaking publicised the issues involved, in brief, simple press advertisements. I knew this publicity was having a telling effect when George strongly objected to it. Perhaps for the first time in Mumbai's labour history citizens organized a morcha against a strike. On the 10th day Fernandes addressed a rally of the workers at Chowpatty. He threatened escalation. Other unions -- taxis, etc -- would strike in sympathy. I happened to be visiting a friend near Chowpatty. We thought the opportunity too good to miss. Together we walked to the meeting, but by then it was breaking up. We asked some of the workers who were dispersing what would happen next, would there be escalation? They were a dispirited lot. "What escalation?" they muttered. "Who will join ?"
At midnight the telephone rang. Fernandes had called the strike off. It was the first time George had lost a strike in the BEST. It began his virtual evanescence from the labour scene in Mumbai.
Despite all I have written, operations and labour management gave me less sleepless nights than did my 140 masters, the respected corporators of the BMC. There were times, of course, when they were quite supportive. They let me unify the electricity tariffs, for example, doing away with the dual tariff for lighting and power, which had encouraged cheating on a large scale. Some of their interventions were of dubious value, though. One BEST Committee Chairman before my time had introduced a new bus route to take his granddaughter to school.
In general, the councillors' deep interest in personnel appointments, their persistent intrusions into contract negotiations, their readiness to make my mistakes for me, regularly put me in mind of the P G Wodehouse dedication of one of his works to his wife, "but for whose constant assistance this book would have been completed in half the time".
The struggle to raise bus fares was a saga in itself. It had begun two GMs earlier. They had each tried to impress the Committee with the desperate need to hike fares, offering successive formulae to slash the Undertaking's losses. Fares had not risen for over a decade, and all the while diesel, tyres and bus chassis had been getting more expensive. The councillors stonewalled each proposal they received from the GM. My predecessors then suggested cancelling certain some bus routes. This too was rebuffed.
On taking over I soon realised that fares simply had to be raised if the BEST was to survive. Urban Development Minister Rafiq Zakaria agreed with me, but thought I was mad to expect a fare rise before the general elections, six months away. I was mad enough to persist. Zakaria had evidently under-estimated what heavy petting and fondling could do. I fashioned a new fare structure, to bring in three times as much extra revenue as my predecessor had asked for. And then I mounted an intense campaign to persuade my masters of the unwisdom of waiting. There were groupings among them and even within the ruling party, divisions and hostilities that just asked to be exploited. Three months before the elections the fare rise won the Corporation's approval.
There was a sequel. We had fixed a date for the adoption of the new fares, we had printed new tickets, we had briefed the field staff. At the last minute Madhu Mehta got a stay order from a court. That was on the day before the date we had chosen for the change. At the hearing, at midday a week later, Barrister Rajni Patel, appearing for the BEST, found a flaw in Mehta's petition and got it dismissed, but Mehta was permitted to re-introduce it after amendment, at 5 p.m. the same day.
At 3 p.m. we introduced the new fares, and the petition became infructuous when it came up.
The fare increase struggle taught me a lot about my political masters. "Like women", I wrote in an unashamedly sexist comment at the time, "politicians need to be courted day and night before they can be seduced. And like women they have their mutual rivalries that an administrator should not shrink from exploiting, in the public interest."