The nine-day strike at Mumbai’s Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) ended on Wednesday afternoon after the civic transport body’s management agreed to a “10-step" interim pay hike.

Around 32,000 BEST workers had stayed off work since 8 January, the longest strike in its 145-year history, demanding pay hike, revision of pay scale for junior employees and the merger of BEST’s budget with that of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). As part of the compromise based on a directive by the Bombay high court, all parties—BEST workers, its management, the state government and the BMC—have agreed to appoint a retired judge as a mediator.

Despite this partial victory, the prevailing mood among BEST workers at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus bus depot in Fort was one of anger and disappointment. “Over the past 10 years, inflation has increased so much but our salaries haven’t risen," says bus conductor Mahesh Balwant Sheware, who was dressed in a black shirt. Other workers nodded in agreement. “We have faith in the high court, but the BMC hasn’t agreed to most of our demands. Even the pay increment is only 10 steps when we asked for 20 steps."

As per the BEST workers’ union and BMC’s previous submissions in court, a ‘one-step’ increase in pay for BEST workers amounts to around 330 per month.

The workers blame the BEST management and the BMC for its woes, including accumulated losses of 2,500 crore. They point towards a number of controversial initiatives, such as the 112 crore contract for a GPS-based vehicle tracking system being awarded to a firm that was fired by the Delhi transport department for poor performance. There’s also the case of the 279 King Long buses supposedly from China that were inducted into the fleet at the turn of the decade with much fanfare. It was later revealed that the buses, which were plagued with technical issues and led to losses averaging 84 crore per annum, were actually made in Jalandhar.

“Everything they (the BMC) has done for the past 10 years has been to run BEST into the ground, so they can privatize it," claims bus conductor Sharad Palghar. “They spend money on projects that don’t work, they jump to work with every contractor rejected by the state transport department."

BEST workers’ union leader Shashank Rao was unavailable for comment when contacted by Mint. Last week, Rao told reporters that he believes the management’s proposal to take 450 buses on wet lease from private contractors would lead to privatization of BEST and the eventual lay-off of BEST employees.

Welcoming the high court’s decision to bring in retired HC judge F.I. Rebello as the mediator, Indian National Congress corporator and BEST committee member Ravi Kondu Raja said that this should help resolve the long-standing dispute regarding wage increases and pay grades. “But if BEST has to survive, then either the BMC or state government has to subsidize it," he said.

Raja also denied the workers’ claims that wet leasing would lead to privatization. “Thane and Navi Mumbai municipal corporations are already doing it," he said. “It’s not a problem as long as the rights of the employees are protected."

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