MUMBAI :Commuting woes of around 25 lakh Mumbaiites will continue on Friday as the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) buses will stay off the roads for a fourth consecutive day. Efforts to end the staff strike failed on Thursday even after a four-hour-long meeting following Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s intervention.
“The ruling party and BEST administration are responsible for the delay in ending the strike,” said Shashank Rao, president of BEST Workers’ Unions. “The administration has so far not given us any counter-proposal in response to our demands.” Rao is heading the agitation launched by a joint action committee of BEST unions.
The talks were held at the Mayor’s Bungalow after Mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar called for a meeting as Thackeray, whose party rules the BEST as well as its parent body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), intervened. With Sena being at the receiving end of criticism, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis-led state government has chosen not to intervene.
While Thackeray’s mediation failed, Fadnavis remained silent, although Rao said the unions have already submitted a representation to the government. The BEST Sanyukta Kamgar Kruti Samiti (BSKKS), joint action committee of the unions, has called a meeting of the workers on Friday to discuss the future course of action.
The unions have called the strike to demand better wages and other benefits for 35,000 workers of the BEST undertaking, which runs the BEST bus service and distributes electricity in the island city.
With strike set to continue on Friday, it will be the longest stir of BEST employees since 1997, when they had gone on strike for three days. Earlier on Thursday, despite the running of 82 Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) buses, private buses along with autorickshaws and taxis, commuters continued to be inconvenienced. Transport officials had deployed 11 flying squads to curb overcharging by taxi and auto drivers.
“I had to wait for 20 minutes with no share autorickshaw in sight,” said Shweta Chavan, an Andheri resident. “Regular autorickshaws are charging Rs20. I would typically reach my workplace for Rs10 by a BEST bus. The government is doing nothing about the strike.”
Since Tuesday, the suburban railways have been operating 16 additional services – four on Central line and 12 on the western line. The Central Railway (CR) added two more services on the harbour line during non-peak hours on Thursday, bringing some relief to the commuters.
Ashish Kumar Singh, principal secretary, transport department, said they were collaborating with transport authorities from Thane, Navi Mumbai and the state transport department to ensure that their buses are run at full capacity to give respite to passengers. “We have also asked all traffic inspectors to be on the field to prevent taxi and auto drivers from fleecing commuters. We have received a few complaints in Mumbai and action was initiated against them.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of family members of BEST employees held a protest march at the Wadala bus depot on Thursday morning, after the BEST administration had issued notices to 2,000 employees to vacate their official quarters if they fail to report to the duty.
A group of BEST employees also met MNS chief Raj Thackeray, apprising him of their demands. “It is a conspiracy by the ruling parties to take over the lucrative BEST land,” said Thackeray, adding that “if you remain united, MNS will support the agitation”.
The Municipal Mazdoor Union, a main labour union in BMC, also threatened to go on a strike in support of the BEST employees. In a letter, the union stated that if no concrete decision is taken they will join the strike. “The demands made by the BEST employees are just, and so we believe that if the administration and the Sena is not able to resolve their issues, then we too will join the strike from Saturday midnight,” said Govind Kamtekar, spokesperson of the Mazdoor union.