Over 32,000 employees of Mumbai's civic transport undertaking went on an indefinite strike on Tuesday, 9 January in support of various demands, including higher salaries.
The strike is expected to continue on Wednesday as talks between the undertaking's management and striking workers failed, even as a Shiv Sena-affiliated union in the transport body said its members had withdrawn from the stir.
The state government quickly moved to invoke the Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act (MESMA) against the striking employees of the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST), while its management asked them to end the stir and come to the negotiating table.
The employees are demanding higher pay, merging budget of the loss-making transport undertaking with that of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), deliberations on new wage agreement, resuming appointments on compassionate grounds and a bonus equivalent to that of the civic body's employees.
The protest by BEST employees coincided with the two-day nationwide bank strike called by trade unions to protest the government's "anti-worker" policies and labour reforms.
The strike, declared illegal by the industrial court, affected nearly 25 lakh daily commuters, who take BEST buses to reach their destinations.
Some commuters complained that autorickshaw drivers were trying to take advantage of the situation and charging five times more than the normal rates.
BEST General Manager Surendra Kumar Bagde said considering the hardships faced by lakhs of Mumbaikars, the MESMA has been invoked though no disciplinary action has been initiated against the striking staffers yet.
The act empowers authorities to take strong action, like detention, against the workers of services covered under the legislation, if they go on a strike.
"Honourable industrial court has declared this strike as illegal. Therefore, first they put an end to the strike and come and talk to us. We are here to have a dialogue considering them as our family members," Bagde told reporters.
He said the BEST administration wants a long term solution to the grievances of employees.
"Therefore, it wants to discuss a comprehensive proposal with them which also deals with the revival of our loss-making entity," Bagde said. "We are ready to hear them, but they should also listen to us. After all, a revival plan has been chalked out which is essential for the betterment of this body," he said.
Bagde said the BEST administration has given an affidavit in the court stating that not a single employee will be retrenched.
"Then why they are on strike on imaginary ground?" he asked.
He said BEST was under tremendous financial pressure and its working capital deficit stood at nearly 180 crore.
Asked about the demand for BEST-BMC budget merger, Bagde said, "The BMC is open to discuss all issues, including the merger. But it (merger) require lots of procedures, conditions, restructuring and a road map etc. We need to follow these procedures," he said.
A meeting between Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta and leaders of the workers' union that has called the strike failed to break the deadlock.
"The strike is illegal and the agitating staffers have been asked to resume work without delay, considering the hardships faced by the lakhs of passengers," a senior civic official told PTI.
The BEST has a fleet of over 3,200 buses, which criss-cross the metropolis and also operate services in the neighbouring Thane district and Navi Mumbai. It is the second-biggest mode of transport in Mumbai after local trains, which ferry over 80 lakh passengers every day.
BEST workers' union leader Shashank Rao said since their meeting with Mehta failed to yield any positive outcome, they went ahead with strike.
A BEST spokesperson said 10 buses were vandalised in different depots by unidentified persons during the night, but no untoward incident was reported since morning.
Meanwhile, the Central Railway and Western Railway operated additional suburban trains for the convenience of commuters.
The Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) ran 55 buses to ferry the stranded passengers to their destinations.
Meanwhile, a large number of police personnel were deployed near BEST depots and stands to help commuters find alternative mode of transport and prevent autorickshaw and taxi drivers from fleecing commuters.
"As there was a possibility that autorickshaw and taxi drivers will not ply to short distances and overcharge passengers, we helped commuters get vehicles for safe ride," a senior police official said.
"We had kept our men near Central, Harbour and Western railway stations located adjacent to BEST depots," he said.
"As there was a rush at these places during peak hours, our staff helped people make queues and avoid any chaos," the official said.
Late Tuesday evening, Suhas Samant, BEST committee member and leader of the Sena’s BEST Kamgar Sena said 11,000 of its members would go back to work on Wednesday to mitigate woes of Mumbaikars.
The Sena union's announcement, however, invited sharp criticism from Best Workers' Union chief Rao who said the former had shown its "true character".
"Now all BEST workers will show them (Sena union) the mirror in the coming days," an irate Rao said.
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