An ongoing Instagram series offers vignettes from Mumbai’s iconic public bus service
With fewer people using the service and insufficient budgets, the service suffers major deficits
In January, around 32,000 employees of Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) went on a nine-day strike, the longest in the history of the bus-fleet service. They were demanding, among other things, a pay hike and merger of the BEST budget with that of the municipal corporation to rescue the public transport service from heavy losses.
The strike also marked the start of a project, called the BEST Stories Collective, by Mohammad Aslam Saiyad and M.S. Gopal. The Instagram series uses photographs to recreate the experience of Mumbai’s bus service. Using the hashtag #BESTstories, the founders post vignettes of life connected to the primary theme of BEST buses. There is an employee in Kandivali who proudly dons a watch gifted to him by BEST for completing 25 years of service. A bus station manager in Andheri ensures people don’t jump the queue. He uses his trusted scooter as a barricade. Then, there are the paper tickets, synonymous with the service itself.
Saiyad, a photographer who also documents the rivers of Mumbai, says the strike opened his eyes to many things. “With nearly 2.5 million people affected, I realized how essential the service is. It connects people from parts of the city that are inaccessible," he says. Saiyad teamed up with content marketing professional Gopal, who runs the hugely popular Instagram account @mumbaipaused. Gopal, who has been shooting Mumbai’s commute culture, says most state development plans are centred around private vehicles. “Public transport is an afterthought," he says.
The founders have tapped into the nostalgia that the iconic red bus evokes. “It’s like a bridge for people; even if you don’t use it now, you remember it," says Gopal.
BEST is one of the oldest public transport systems in the city, set up in 1873 as Bombay Tramway Co. Ltd. The buses and bus stops have been a familiar setting for cinema romances; Saiyad recalls Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat (1976), and one could add this year’s Gully Boy.
Today, the service suffers major deficits, even as vast sums are reserved for the new kid on the block, the Mumbai Metro (the civic body allocated ₹7,486 crore for the Metro project this year). BEST’s budget for 2019-20 estimates a loss of ₹769 crore.
The BEST Stories Collective addresses the urgency of the situation. “This is an attempt to make travelling by bus cool and contemporary. If you don’t make it cool, then people won’t use it," says Gopal.
It’s a policy that the founders follow as well. Saiyad abandons his bike and Gopal his car in favour of a long bus ride, where they read, chat with passengers and take photographs of the people who make BEST what it is.