City’s BEST friends: Men in khaki who ferry essential services staff

Thirty-year-old bus conductor Ashish Khilari quietly leaves his Kalbadevi residence at 3 am on Thursday. His five-year-old son is fast asleep, unaware that his “Pappa” is one of the city heroes fighting it out on the streets in the battle against Covid-19. Khilari is part of the 5,600strong BEST task force which has been reporting for duty at the appointed hour every day. It is their job to ensure that people providing essential services are ferried to their place of work. Many of them have cancelled leaves and weekly offs to be on emergency duty. From as far away as Palghar on the Western line to Ambernath and Badlapur on the Central Main line and Panvel on the Harbour line, the essential service providers are brought to the city. “I rush to my bike and reach Pratiksha Nagar depot before 4 am,” says Khilari. He boards an empty BEST bus from Pratiksha Nagar depot and reaches Kalyan at 5 am. From here he and the driver have the responsibility of checking the identity cards of all passengers and ensuring everybody maintains the mandated distance. This time, the commuters comprise nurses, medical staff, policemen, BMC workers and Port Trust workers. Driver Sandeep More says plying the bus on empty roads is a smooth affair. The threat this time is inside the bus. All drivers and conductors wear amask. “Everyone thanks us for the trip before alighting,” says a conductor, requesting anonymity. For those involved in essential services, information and assistance is available on 1800227550, 24146533 and 24246898. BEST general manager Surendrakumar Bagde says MSRTC plays a supporting role, ferrying passengers from far-flung areas to changeover points in Thane, Borivli and Vashi. “We run 1,500-2,000 buses on several routes, even if there are few passengers,” says Bagade. “Our khakhi-clad BEST team has taken up that responsibility.” Garage staff sanitise the buses from 3 am, mechanics check for any faults. A team checks every staff member’s temperature. Besides over 5,300 drivers and conductors, nearly 150 inspectors and more than 100 garage and other staff are involved in the daily battle that has many more days to go.