Long days journey into night for truck drivers

Poor wages and facilities and lonely hours on the highway have meant fewer aspirants and an acute shortage, despite a growing economy

December 30, 2017 09:33 pm | Updated 11:49 pm IST - Mumbai

Bumpy road: The drivers enjoy no social benefits such as medical insurance, retirement benefits and family protection schemes.

Bumpy road: The drivers enjoy no social benefits such as medical insurance, retirement benefits and family protection schemes.

Ravindra Singh has an injured foot, but that’s not reason enough to take a day off, even though he is driving his truck alone, with no cleaner or assistant. The 55-year-old from Uttar Pradesh has been driving for 25 years, and timetables are crucial.

“If I don’t deliver on time, my wages will be cut,” he says matter of factly.

Then he takes a minute to vent. “There is no izzat (respect) left in this profession. There is no family life, no money, constant harassment by the cops, local goons and RTO officials. Why would one join?”

Then he is up and back into his cabin — his short break at a noisy, truck-stop centre in Manesar, Haryana, over.

Gender pioneer

Yogita Raghuvanshi is possibly India’s only female long-distance truck driver. She is a law graduate from Bhopal. When her husband, a truck owner, died in an accident, she was left with EMIs on his truck and two children to put through school. Hiring a driver would cut into already small margins, so she began driving herself.

“It is a tough job and not very rewarding,” she says. “There is no fixed tariff. Commission agents exploit us, take away most of the profit.” In 2015, Mahindra & Mahindra gave her a retrofitted 25-tonner as a salute to her courage. With no more loans, she is making some profit.

Santosh Gupta drove trucks for eight years. “It’s tough, but there was no other option then,” he says. “I needed to support my family and pay for my sister’s wedding.” But he has quit and moved from Varanasi to Mumbai. He now drives for car rental companies, earning about ₹25,000 a month; more important, he gets to go home to his family on most days.

A transport crisis

Transporters say drivers take home ₹25,000 to ₹30,000 a month. Drivers say they make far less: salaries are around ₹10,000, plus a ₹200 per day food allowance and incentives for saving fuel and on-time deliveries.

Jagannarayan Padmanabhan, director, Transport at CRISIL Infrastructure Advisory, says that the low entry barrier puts drivers at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiations. In addition, “The unorganised nature of the industry leads to contract labour-type work, with no social benefits like medical insurance and retirement benefits,” he says.

Aside from the low wages, demanding schedules, unhealthy working conditions and extended periods away from home, drivers also complain about victimisation by corrupt traffic policemen and RTO officials. And there is the built-in risk that comes with long hours on highway — accidents. Trucks and tempos accounted for 21% of 480,652 all road accidents in 2016.

According to data collated by civil society organisation Parisar from official sources, 28,910 truck drivers died in 2015 in 1,48,707 road accident fatalities.

Idle trucks

Truck driving, once aspirational for illiterate and semi-literate youth — a way to make a living and see a bit of the world — is no longer attractive. Even truck drivers don’t want their sons to join the profession.

There are also now more options for the demographic from which the profession drew its manpower, according to Ravindra Pisharody, former executive director, Commercial Vehicles, Tata Motors. Finance is easier to get, he says, so many drivers are buying light commercial vehicles that operate in small circles, closer home. The booming taxi aggregation business, which has similar low entry barriers, has also lured many away as an easier option.

Consequently, while there are around 20 lakh truck drivers in India, there aren’t enough of them. The All India Transporters Welfare Association data says the driver to truck ratio is now below 750 per 1000. In 1982, that number was 1,300 drivers, which dropped to 890 by 2012. This means approximately 25% to 30% of India’s trucks are idle at any given point of time.

Road transport is on average 50% more expensive than rail and 600% more than water transport. It also leaves a larger environmental footprint. But it still rules because roads reach every corner of the country, covering 32,00,000 km as per NHAI data, with 17 km being added every day.

By contrast, the Railways has just over a lakh kilometres of track. It will take time and investment to strengthen rail corridors and open up inland waterways for freight. Until then, India’s growing economy needs trucks — and truckers.

Wooing new entrants

“Things are changing, but much needs to be done,” says Abdul Majeed, partner, Price Waterhouse. “The design of the truck cabin and use of technology as well as connectivity are gradually making a difference, but transporters are not willing to pay for the added features. Fleet operators must realise that the driver is not a commodity; they must be willing to pay more for advanced trucks which provide comforts and safety.”

Mr. Padmanabhan says, “It should be made mandatory for all logistics services companies to provide basic safety-nets, like retirement benefits and insurance to drivers.”

Manufacturers and transporters — and other stakeholders like oil companies— have seen the writing on the wall. They are vying with each other to improve the working condition of drivers.

A better ‘office’ is an obvious start. Nalin Mehta, former MD & CEO, Mahindra Trucks and Buses, says all Mahindra vehicles now have A/C cabins and other comforts like storage areas and comfortable bunks. Mahindra is also working on the education of drivers’ children through its Nanhi Kali programme.

“Under the Mahindra Sarthi Abhiyaan, scholarships are distributed for the girl child,” Mr. Mehta says. “Drivers who have shown enough courage to educate their girls till the 10th standard are being recognised.” The scheme has distributed over ₹2.5 crore till date.

Tata Motors, India’s largest commercial vehicle maker, is addressing the skill gap, setting up Driver Training Institutes across the country with support from the government. These institutes train over 9,500 drivers a year. It is also organizing T1 racing to make the profession aspirational.

Eicher Trucks and Buses and Indian Oil Corporation opened a Driver Pragati Kendra at Manesar. It provides dormitories, bathing and washing areas, subsidised food, laundry and recreational facilities, and access to cash machines. It will also provide training on best practices, like fuel-efficient driving techniques, safe driving habits, and vehicle maintenance, as well as subjects like health, personal wellbeing, and financial literacy.

Vinod Aggarwal, MD & CEO of Eicher’s VE Commercial Vehicles division, says, “Our objective is to improve the working conditions of commercial vehicle drivers [by providing] an environment where they can easily access their daily needs to improve their efficiency.” Initially, 200 drivers will benefit every month, which will be scaled up gradually.

The Agarwal Movers Group focusses on road safety, specifically fatigue, which claims many lives. In 2012, it started a 500-truck capacity Driver Seva Kendra in Rajasthan, where drivers can bathe, and sleep comfortably sure that their trucks and consignments are safe. Ramesh Agarwal, chairman, claims that the initiative saves one life a day. “If a single Kendra can achieve this, imagine how many lives will be saved if many corporates could come forward to do the same?”

Sriram Transport Finance Company has been providing finance to help drivers become owners. But Umesh Revankar, MD & CEO, knows this isn’t enough. “Unless charm is built around the profession and drivers’ success stories are told, nobody would opt to be a truck driver,” he says.

The company has an institute that has trained 5,000 drivers thus far, and is focussing attention on skill gaps like training for driving heavy trucks. They are also attempting to help drivers improve their lives, using CSR funds to provide scholarships to their children.

Not convinced

How do drivers feel about these measures?

Kishor Kumar Swami, from Shamli in U.P., says “I have not received any benefits, and I have not heard about anybody receiving anything.” He sees no option but for the government to pitch in to help change conditions.

Rajkumar Karsana, from JhunJhunu in Rajasthan echoes that thought. “The government must think of our welfare,” he says. Mahindra Singh Rajput, from Ajmer also in Rajasthan, who drives his own truck, says that the big need is higher wages.

“Transporters once used to take care of the drivers and their families. Today, drivers are neglected.”

“Whatever is being done for drivers is nothing to address their sufferings,” says Daljit Singh Bal, president, Federation of Bombay Motor Transport Operators Association. “The main problem is that there is no social security.”

He also condemns the harassment drivers face and the poor work conditions. “The driver must be able spend his life with dignity. Truck companies, tyre companies, oil and lubricant firms, transporters, and even the government should contribute to a fund for the welfare of drivers.”

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