Managing city transport with state-of-the-art facilities is no easy job for a loss-making enterprise, but with the urban transport policy acknowledging this issue, O P Gupta sees brighter days ahead for BEST. Excerpts from an interview with Kartik Sharma of ENN
Give us an overview of BEST undertaking.
The Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) is the civic transport and electricity provider public body based in Mumbai. We provide bus transport across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region including Thane, Navi Mumbai and other major regions. Electric supply is provided from Colaba to Mahim on the western side and from Colaba to Sion on the eastern side. Unlike the New Delhi Municipal Council, which provides electricity to only parts of New Delhi, BEST is one of a kind that is responsible for two services together.
How do you manage to operate two different sectors?
Earlier, there was much more integration, but now the two are two different services. As an administrator, I have to deal with different functions very carefully. There are specialised divisions – supply and technical. When my team is focussing on the technical aspect, I elaborate upon the work plan and schemes in terms of policies, formulation and their longterm implementation.
Brief us the ‘Cashless Travel’ service that you have introduced.
Traditionally, bus transport in India has been associated with conductors punching paper tickets for the commuters. In 2010, we introduced the electronic ticketing system and the electronic ticketing machine replaced the paper ticket. Simultaneously, we started the RFID Smart Card for people who travel frequently on certain routes. These commuters can take certain packs which can be monthly, quarterly or annually. With this card, they do not need to carry change money as a fare. We also realised that there are several occasional travelers and introduced the RFID card for them too. All these commuters have to do now is pre-load the card and travel for the entire day without any cash transactions. These services come under our ‘Cashless Travel Best Travel’ facility.
Are there any plans for introducing a single card for all means of transport in Mumbai as it is in Bangalore?
This idea was initiated in Mumbai itself. Four years ago, BEST, in association with the railways, introduced a ‘Go Mumbai’ card, which was valid for railways as well as the BEST buses. The only problem was that the card did not have a proper mechanism. Seamless operation has been made possible after we introduced our electronic ticketing system. The government then asked for a single card for passengers to travel across the city. They passed instructions to other cities too to join the common platform. In Mumbai, we are trying to implement it across various modes of transport. We have been in touch with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). But after the contracts were awarded to these people, technology innovation did not take place.
What are the initiatives being taken to maintain the quality of buses?
In the last three years, we have introduced CCTV cameras in BEST buses. In over 3,000 buses, two cameras have already been installed with the recording capacity of 72 hours. A GPS-enabled service has also been installed in 2,000 buses and another 2,000 buses will get it by the year-end. The GPS system will be used to track buses and divert them in case of emergency. BEST has also installed LCD screens inside the buses and using GPS service we plan to make announcements of ‘the next bus stop’ on the screens. We have also installed audio-visual screens at every bus stop. Passengers will know in advance when their stop will arrive. BEST has also launched a mobile service that allows commuters to get mobile and Internet updates about the scheduled time of arrival of a bus at a particular stop. As far as elevating quality standards, we will move on to next generation buses as current buses were built on an old platform. Now, the Indian government has finalised bus specifications which have been notified for the urban bus system. With this, the new buses that will be procured by city transport services will match those specifications. One big challenge in Mumbai is running closed-door buses because the number of people travelling in peak hours is huge. But we are planning to bring closed-door buses as it would help in promoting safety and would also enhance the commuting experience in the long run.
Any plans on introducing energy- efficient buses or other green initiatives?
This initiative was taken by BEST almost 10-15 years back. Even though it costs a lot but BEST, even before the Supreme Court order, started CNG buses in Mumbai. CNGrun buses are almost pollution free as com pared to the dieselrun buses. With modern and reliable technology, we have been making constant efforts to keep the pollution levels under control.
“BEST has been fully conscious of the alarming levels of pollution in the cities. But with modern and reliable technology, we have been making constant efforts to keep pollution levels within check”
You have mechanised the public helpline system. How is it helping people?
We have arranged a helpline system where commuters can call our toll free numbers in case of a problem with BEST services. Once an online complaint is received, facts of the complaint are verified followed by instituting an inquiry. In inquiry, the complainant and the person against whom the complaint has been made are informed and if the person is found at fault, strict action is taken against the employee. People now have the confidence that if a reference is made to BEST regarding any issue, it will be addressed. Employees too have become aware that complaints against them will not be overlooked.
What is your vision about BEST and the integration of IT and ICT in the organisation?
In terms of operation, efficiency and services, BEST is probably the best in the country. The only problem faced is finance which is a common phenomenon everywhere; city transports run as a loss-making enterprise. In all other places, money is either paid by the body running the service or the state governments. BEST is unique as it operates as an autonomous organisation. The cross-subsidy in all these years came from the electrical side. However, after the implementation of the Electricity Act, limitations in generating profits from the electrical supply side have cropped up and we are also facing financial issues from the transport side for quite some time now. We tried surpassing the financial problem via PPP but such joint ventures come with their own limitations. Private firms are not interested in such ventures as this sector hardly makes any profit beyond a set margin. Thankfully, the Urban Transport Policy has acknowledged these issues and is planning to bring forth a national transport fund and city transport fund that can provide financial support for the services to run efficiently. If such funds and financial schemes are implemented, BEST Undertaking services will definitely get a boost.