“There is a difference between being poor and being broke. Broke is temporary. Poor is eternal.”
Robert Kiyosaki in his book “Rich Dad Poor Dad” says that if a son uses the loan given by his dad to come out of his current financial crisis, he then has a ‘rich dad’; but if the son becomes dependent on his dad’s loan and remains eternally poor, his dad then is a ‘poor dad’.
This quote becomes relevant in the context of the recent bailout announced by the MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) Commissioner for Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST).
The civic body decided to give ₹100 crores to the BEST every month until their budgets merged. This decision was taken as BEST has accumulated losses which have crossed the ₹2,000 crore mark. This translates to a shocking loss of INR 2.35 crore daily. In addition to this, the BEST Undertaking has other outstanding dues amounting to ₹2,600 crores which need to be paid back.
Public transportation, as a service of the state, is subsidized all over the world. In that context, this financial aid is a step in the right direction. While the objective is not to make profits, any service provider has to at least breakeven to ensure long-term sustainability and financial viability of operations. In the case of BEST, the discontinuation of cross-subsidy (from the electric supply division of BEST to its public transport arm) beginning in 2003 – is only one of the various factors that have negatively affected its financial health and operational efficiency.
BEST is overburdened with conflicting expectations. It is supposed to be a cheap-source of public transport but at the same time, it needs to prevent Bombay automobile congestion. This translates into a choice between cheap robustness for the former v/s higher-priced luxury for the latter. Similarly, BEST buses are burdened with the numerous shortcomings of urban planning in Mumbai. The mistakes of planning lead to dispersed populations, inadequate roads, and lack of infrastructure for bus stops. On the contrary, a spate of infrastructural projects leads to vehicular traffic, thus reducing the number of daily trips made by public transport.
The waning popularity of BEST has led to a steep rise in the number of auto-rickshaws plying the city. The number of autos has almost doubled in the past three years from 105,000 in 2016 to 207,000 in January 2019. This reflects the increased demand for last-mile connectivity. The fast-multiplying numbers of auto-rickshaws have also contributed to increased road congestion. Another reason for the fall in the number of BEST bus passengers is their lack of reliability. Cab aggregators and auto rickshaws offer reliability and predictability in their services. While common complaints by commuters about torn seats, broken handles, throbbing noise from the engine and just general maintenance only add fuel to the fire.
Thus, the enormity of the challenge facing BEST is quite unique and requires strategic ingenuity to overcome. BEST’s response, to put it kindly, has been lackadaisical. Post-2014, BEST has claimed that it has taken several economic measures to curb the losses incurred. Among them was the introduction of smart card ticket systems, scheme of two tv-screen per bus, low maintained air-conditioned buses. BEST has experimented with fare hikes as well as fare cuts but it hasn’t really made much difference. If the response by BEST is examined, one realizes that it has either been poorly thought out or poorly executed. In short, the woes of BEST arise from various operational inefficiencies, policy inadequacies, environmental challenges, and strategic mistakes.
According to Kiyosaki, the primary difference between the rich and the poor is how they manage stress. Poor Dad keeps it safe and avoids risks. This perspective can be costly in the long-run. “Often in the real world, it’s not the smart who get ahead, but the bold,” says Rich Dad.
It is time for MCGM to step up as a Rich Dad and make some bold decisions to make BEST buses once again the preferred mode of transport for Mumbaikars. A merger of the budgets of BEST and MCGM is one of the bold long-term solutions to the former’s mounting financial problems. BEST should use the funds given by MCGM and work towards increasing the efficiency of their system. It needs to stop buying new buses and needs to start hiring them on a contractual basis. Solutions like route rationalization, dedicated bus lanes on arterial roads, and the inclusion of smaller-sized ‘midi buses’ on narrow streets and busy areas must be tried out in order to ensure that buses are given a priority on the roads. BEST should stop seeing companies like Uber and Ola as antagonists and start looking at ways to co-opt their technological solutions for public benefit. It could take the form of a platform integrating public buses equipped with GPS and an app that allows commuters to see bus locations and wait times. BEST must ensure that the money spent is for the betterment of the undertaking. Unless BEST completely revamps its operations and works with renewed vigor, this infusion of crores of rupees from its parent organization will mean nothing.
For several years, every single day, hundreds of Mumbaikars wait for the same BEST at the same bus-stop to commute. Every Mumbaikar has very fond memories of the BEST buses. But, if the abysmal 9kmph average of buses isn’t improved, new technologies aren’t adopted, and new routes based on the changing demography of the city aren’t identified, it won’t be long before the 92-year-old BEST busses will die a slow death.
Thankfully, the financial assistance by the MCGM has come at a critical time and should provide BEST a much-needed backbone. By playing the role of a good father, MCGM has bailed out his ailing son, BEST. However, MCGM will have to make sure that the funds are to be used wisely and for productive purposes only. The trajectory of BEST post this financial aid will eventually decide whether the MCGM is — as expounded by Kiyosaki — a rich dad or a poor dad.
-Chitrangshi Biswas (Editor, Declassified)
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