The ‘BEST’ scamster Indians should know about – Congress and the Khobragades have a lot to explain

Don’t you just hate it when you pay extra for a premium service and that “premium service” doesn’t work?

Mumbaikars will remember how a decade ago, the city’s transport company (Transco) – the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking – launched its purple-coloured air-conditioned Kinglong buses with much fanfare. Back in the day, A/C buses were a no-go for us middle-class high school students, but we did manage to sneak in the occasional trip.

At a time when other cities getting high-end Volvo buses (manufactured in Hosakote, Karnataka) at ₹75lakh, BEST made news by saying it would spend ₹40lakh and get a bus that was made in China. However, this is where the problem began.

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Having moved out of Mumbai around the time these purple buses made their first appearance, my first (mis)adventure on them was two years later in 2010. I was taken aback by the huge size of the bus.

My first trip on BEST's Kinglong in 2010. (Srikanth Ramakrishnan on the Wikimedia Commons)
My first trip on BEST’s Kinglong in 2010. (Srikanth Ramakrishnan on the Wikimedia Commons)

… and I then asked myself the very first question: If this is a Kinglong bus, why does it not look like the Kinglong buses that I have seen on the internet and more importantly why does the logo say Cerita and not Kinglong?

This was, however, only my initial reaction on seeing the bus. My main observations came while commuting. The bus I took, was headed to Andheri (Agarkar Chowk) from Mulund Check Naka. While crossing Powai, where the road is undulating and has several inclines, the airconditioning practically stopped working. Suddenly, the ₹35 ticket didn’t seem like value for money to me.

A year or two later, my questions were answered when a newspaper report surfaced. The buses were not Kinglong buses at all, but buses made by Jaycee Coaches (JCBL) under the brand of Cerita in Mohali, Punjab. Kinglong’s participation in them was a few components within the bus – a spark plug here and a spark plug there.

The man behind the procurement of these buses was the then General Manager of BEST, Uttam Khobragade. Does the name ring a bell? His daughter Devyani, after all, made international headlines for the alleged mistreatment of her domestic help. She gained further notoriety when none other than the Supreme Court of India held that her posting as an IFS officer was made by bending rules in 1999.

Now, coming back to these “Purple Faeries“, both Khobragade and then Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh had called them Kinglong buses at the inauguration ceremony. Worse, an excuse was made, the floral decoration during the inauguration hid the logo and thus nobody realised that it wasn’t what it was supposed to be.

When asked about it several years later, Khobragade responded saying he didn’t remember the specifics because the matter was too old. The 285 buses broke down over 4,000 times in 2.5 years, caught fire numerous times and were still in operation. The Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC or ST) which had around 15 of these buses in its fleet (operating on the Dadar-Pune route) quickly phased them out the minute one of them caught fire.

The buses were so terrible that they perennially ran empty and were always a white elephant (or rather a purple elephant for us). They cost a lot to maintain and were heavily loss-making. On one occasion at Thane Station, when I boarded a BEST AS-700, the conductor asked me: Aap is bus mein kyon chad rahe ho, woh TMT (Thane Municipal Transport) ka bus lelo, jaldi pahunch jaoge aur kam paise lagega (Why are you boarding this bus, take that TMT bus, it’ll reach faster and will cost less).

BEST ultimately scrapped all AC services after playing around with certain plans such as slashing fares, introducing short distance routes and introducing discounted fares during off-peak hours (Happy Hours), but it just didn’t work out. Today, a lot of these buses have been converted into non-AC buses and operate on short trips as Fort Pheri services after the decade-old Starbus fleet was phased out.

The interesting part of all this? An IAS officer who worked with Khobragade had same very scathing views about the man. He said, “I agree that Khobragade is ‘corrupt’ and may have conspired on the King Long deal. But the question is will the Government prosecute him?”

Around the same time, another scam came to light. This scam, was huge, so huge in fact that it saw the incumbent CM Ashok Chavan being shunted out and being replaced with Prithviraj Chavan. I’m sure at this point, you have understood the scam I am talking about: The Adarsh Housing scam.

The scam had both Khobragade Sr and Khobragade Jr involved in it to a major extent. While the details of the scam are known to everyone – how a group of officials in the armed forces and bureaucracy bent rules, violating FSI, zoning laws, coastal guidelines, and more to build the apartment complex and then allotted houses to themselves – there is one interesting thing that stands out. The Adarsh building stands right next to BEST’s Backbay Depot in Cuffe Parade and according to several reports, the land was meant to be for expanding the depot. Now, given that Khobragade Sr was in charge at the time, it would have been quite impossible for the matter to proceed without his involvement. But how deep was his involvement? Pretty deep, according to this Firstpost report, that says that thanks to the shady land swap, the Adarsh building went up from six floors to 31 floors! You read that right. The building was originally meant to be six floors, but due to some land being usurped from BEST, it had the required FSI to go up to 31 floors! After this, Khobragade Jr got herself a flat in the building, along with another flat allotted in a government colony in Oshiwara where she paid a minor sum to get it.

During a trip on an AS-4 to Backbay Depot in 2015, I had a conversation with the driver and conductor. While they both were criticising the rattling bus, the conductor pointed to the monstrosity in front of the depot and asked me if I knew what it was. Before I could reply, he said (without batting an eyelid) – Adarsh Ghotala. The eyesore that stood adjacent to the bus depot, was the scam-ridden building.

But why is all this relevant? Around ten days ago, news came out that Uttam Khobragade had joined the Congress. Yes, the same Congress that did nothing for highways till 2004 and then had the nerve to tell voters that they did more in 10 years of UPA than what the NDA did in five years under Vajpayee. The same Congress under whose watchful gaze (1999 to 2014), Mumbai fell victim to no less than 7 terror attacks killing over 450 people. The same Congress that pulled off astronomical scams and yet comes to us begging for votes. The same Congress whose functionaries go to Pakistan and say “get rid of them and bring us back”.

Transport is a very personal issue for a lot of us and any official who messes it up needs to be reminded that they are hurting the common man.

To sum it all up:

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Folks, you know where my vote is not going.

Urban Affairs and FinTech at Swarajya, blogs at http://bestpedia.in

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