By Vidyadhar Date & Hussain Indorewala
(For Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST)
On 7th August, BEST is observing BEST Divas. Each year, since the Utility was municipalized in 1947, the BEST Divas involves celebrations, felicitations and nostalgic reflections on the economic, social and cultural contributions of BEST to the city of Mumbai.
This year, the mood is sombre. More than a thousand employees of BEST have fallen ill and more than one hundred have passed away in recent months, not least due to the appalling handing of the COVID-19 pandemic by the city and government authorities. In recent years, the city’s bus services have been systematically shrunk, starved of investment and sold to private contractors – in the name of making it financially viable.
The adamant stand of the BEST Management and the government to privatize BEST has led to both the decline in the quality of services for citizens, as well as threatened the livelihoods of its workers. The neglect of health and safety norms during the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the health and well-being of workers, their families, and citizens. It is difficult for us to not believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is seen as another opportunity for the authorities to downsize the workforce, contractualize services, and eventually handover BEST’s land and assets to private interests.
DEATHS OF BEST WORKERS
In two of our previous statements (dated 8th May and 18th May), we pointed out the unsafe conditions in which the BEST workers were being made to work during the pandemic. We had urged the Management to adopt policy of “safety first”, i.e. the first priority should be the safety of the workers who are risking their lives to extend essential services to the public and to provide a safe mode of commute for other frontline workers in the city of Mumbai. Despite these repeated appeals, there was little positive response from the Management. The expected and tragic consequences of the Management’s neglect has been - according to the workers’ unions - 1350 workers infected with the SARS-COV-2 virus, and 107 deaths due to COVID-19 complications. The response of the authorities has been denial: the “official” figure according to the Management is 26 deaths.
What explains this disparity in numbers? It is likely that the “official” number of deaths due to COVID-19 are underestimated due to the entry on the death certificate form. However, as a separate statement issued by the Jan Swastha Abhiaayn (JSA) and Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST (AMAB) pointed out, good practice in identifying cause of death must indicate the immediate cause of death, the antecedent cause, if any, which contributed to the underlying immediate cause, and any other significant condition which may be present and which would have influenced but not directly contributed to the death. If all these aspects were considered, it is likely that the “official” number of deaths of BEST workers during the past few months would be closer to the figure claimed by the unions.
There is enough reason to presume that all deaths during these recent months are COVID-19 related, unless proved otherwise:
1) While the cause of death may be disputed, the number of workers who have died (107) is not in dispute.
2) All of these deaths have occurred in recent months in the midst of a global pandemic with tens of thousands of cases in Mumbai alone. All the deceased workers were of working age (60 or younger).
3) Many, if not most of the deaths are of people who have been on duty as frontline workers and are therefore at highest risk of exposure to the virus.
4) Hundreds of workers have been admitted into various hospitals due to COVID-19, and many hundreds quarantined at home. This means that the disease is quite widespread among the BEST workers, not the least due to continuous exposure to the virus when on duty.
5) There are some instances where workers whose deaths have been registered as “non-COVID related” have had family members in quarantine or in hospital.
These facts make it incumbent upon the authorities to investigate each particular case to show why it is not a COVID-19 related death.
WHAT BEST MUST COMMIT TO ON BEST DIVAS
We therefore demand that the BEST Management and government commit to the following steps on BEST Divas, in the interest of citizens, workers, and the BEST itself:
(1) An uncompromising policy on the safety of employees
The administration must equip all the medical departments in BEST depots, in order to carry out daily tests on all its employees who are on duty. These departments must issue safety kits and protective gear to all workers on a daily basis, as well as instructions and training on how to use them effectively. Buses must be sanitised daily as mandated by health practitioners (especially ensuring that all high-touch surfaces are disinfected). Good quality and nutritious food must be prepared and served to workers in canteens. Physical distancing norms must be followed in resting rooms and waiting areas. Facilities for overnight stay must be hygienic, comfortable and be equipped with adequate sanitary facilities.
A critical safety principle at the time of an epidemic is to encourage workers to self-report as soon as they experience symptoms. To ensure voluntary cooperation of all employees, the employees need an assurance that their absence will not affect them and their families financially.
(2) Compensation package
The Pune Municipal Corporation has announced that workers who lose their lives due to COVID-19 will be given a monetary compensation of Rs. 1 crore and a job for a family member. In an online petition circulated recently, the workers demand that the BEST prepare a list of all the employees who have died due to COVID-19 complications and that the heirs of the deceased be given a compensation of 50 lakhs and employment to one member of the family. BEST must accept this demand. Additionally, if any worker or immediate family member of a worker is found to be infected with the disease, the BEST must ensure immediate and urgent care and treatment, and bear all the costs involved. BEST must ensure that sufficient hospital beds are made available for BEST workers/family members who contract COVID-19, if necessary setting up facilities of its own.
(3) Reversal of unjust actions against employees
Many workers who had been unable to attend work during the lockdown – one can imagine many reasons why they were unable to do so – but the Management has cynically used it as an excuse to deduct salaries or even dismiss them from their jobs. These deductions and dismissals must be immediately reversed.
(4) Change in policy
COVID-19 has shown why a publicly funded and operated bus service essential: from the perspective of affordability, reliability, public health and public safety. BEST and the government must commit itself to keeping public transport public – and introduce (1) a new financial model for BEST; (2) recruitment to ensure full utilisation of the existing fleet, and for the planned expansion of fleet; (3) a mechanism for public monitoring of contractors; (4) revival of closed routes; and (5) active measures to bring down traffic congestion, and a reversal of policies which promote private automobiles.