Couple's sit-in protest 'driving' force behind BEST-hired private bus operators' strike in Mumbai, Image: PTI
A quiet sit-in agitation by a couple triggered a chain of events that eventually culminated in a strike by the drivers of private bus operators hired by the BEST, which has impacted the civic transport body's services in Mumbai and its suburban areas, officials said on Friday.
The man taking part in the sit-in agitation is a contractual employee of one of the private bus operators hired by the civic transport body. According to the officials, the strike by the drivers associated with private bus operators hired by the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST), for salary hike and other demands, entered the third day on Friday and saw with more than 1,300 buses staying off roads, inconveniencing commuters.
Nearly 1,700 of the BEST's fleet of 3,100 buses are run by contractual operators, who are paid a fixed amount for their services. The staffers working for these operators on contract basis have been striking since Wednesday. The strike began with a quiet sit-in agitation launched by the couple, Raghunath Khajurkar and his wife Pradnya, on Monday (July 31) and it has since garnered the support of more than 2,000 contractual drivers, the officials said.
Pradnya Khajurkar had attempted to get some information from the BEST under the Right to Information Act (RTI) recently, and on being denied the request twice, she along with her husband Raghunath, who is a contractual employee with the Daga Group, one of the private operators hired by the transport body, decided to escalate things, they said.
The Khajurkars began their protest at Azad Maidan in south Mumbai on July 31, but it hardly received any response on the first two days, they said. A social media post on the agitation was circulated among workers on Tuesday and from the next day, employees of two depots in the eastern suburbs stopped work, and on Wednesday, 150 buses of the Daga Group were off roads, and a few hundred employees were in Azad Maidan to support their demand for salary hike and free ride, among others.
By Thursday, more than 1,000 buses did not operate and the number of striking drivers increased to a few thousands, they said. According to BEST officials, the private operators are equally helpless as they don't know whom to negotiate with. “Our operators say that they don't know whom to speak to end the stand-off. It is a leaderless strike,” a BEST staffer said, adding the Khajurkar couple stages dharna at Azad Maidan till 5:30 pm every evening before leaving for home.
While the BEST finds itself in a pickle, labour unions, including affiliated to different political parties, are trying to woo employees of private bus operators, showing their support for their strike, officials said. BEST officials and labour unions said that as the agitation is leaderless, it might stray from its course like the protest by Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) employees a few years ago.
The BEST cannot hold a dialogue with the striking drivers, as they are not direct employees of the private bus operators and have been hired on contract, an official said. Mumbai had witnessed a nine-day strike of BEST's permanent employees a few years ago, but it was led by union leaders, he said.
One of the striking drivers said that so far no union was representing them. BEST general manager Vijay Singhal is abroad on an official visit, which has only aggravated things, insiders said.
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