Truckers strike sets off panic buying of fuel in several States

Drivers are protesting longer jail terms for hit-and-run cases under new law; long queues seen at fuel stations in northern, western, and central States; dealers ask oil companies to step in; CMs of Rajasthan, M.P. review situation as outlets run dry

January 02, 2024 11:17 am | Updated 11:21 pm IST - Chandigarh

Queue at a petrol pump as a strike by truckers triggers panic buying in Lucknow on January 2, 2023.

Queue at a petrol pump as a strike by truckers triggers panic buying in Lucknow on January 2, 2023. | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

As truckers stayed off the roads on January 2 to protest against stricter punishments for hit-and-run cases under a new law, there was chaos at fuel stations across India’s northern, western, and central States, as people indulged in panic buying, fearing short supplies of petrol and diesel due to the strike.

The protesters, mostly drivers of trucks, buses, and oil tankers, staged demonstrations, blocking roads at several places across States, including Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir.

The protest turned violent in Rajasthan, where a mob in the Kekri district burnt a police vehicle and pelted stones at security personnel, leaving three injured, according to the police. The incident occurred when a mob started to pelt stones at a police team trying to clear a traffic jam on the Ajmer-Bhilwara highway.

Cap on fuel sales

The Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, recently enacted to replace the Indian Penal Code, provides for a maximum punishment of imprisonment up to ten years or ₹7 lakh fine for drivers who cause a serious road accident by negligent driving and then run away without informing the police or any other authorities. Under the IPC, the punishment in such cases was a two-year jail term.

Amid the panic buying of fuel, the Chandigarh administration imposed temporary restrictions on the sale of petrol and diesel at fuel stations in the Union Territory. Punjab, however, asserted that there was no need for the public to panic as an adequate stock of petrol and diesel was available in the State. In Chandigarh, effective immediately, two-wheelers are limited to a maximum of two litres (maximum value of ₹200) and four-wheelers are limited to five litres (maximum value of ₹500) of fuel per transaction, according to an official statement. 

The fuel supply at almost 4,000 petrol pumps in Punjab has been affected because of the agitation, according to Punjab Petroleum Dealers Association secretary Rajesh Kumar. Motorists also queued up at fuel stations in Haryana, where private bus operators and a few auto-rickshaw unions have also joined the protest.

‘Discussion, not agitation’

The Consortium of Indian Petroleum Dealers (CIPD), has written to the three oil marketing companies saying that the flash strike by contract truckers had led to supplies being hit and several fuel outlets going dry. “We would like to co-operate and support the OMCs in bringing about normalcy in supplies. As much as the grievance of the drivers is appropriate, discussion instead of agitation would have been the right course. We request OMCs to play a role of liaison for communicating all aspects of the issue to the agitated party to find out solution,” said K. Suresh Kumar of the CIPD.

New CMs review situation

In Chhattisgarh, long queues were seen at petrol pumps in the Raipur and elsewhere, with some customers complaining that pumps were drying out. If the strike persists, it is likely to pose a critical challenge to far-flung areas of the Bastar region such as Bijapur that have only a handful of fuel stations to serve an entire district. Chief Minister Vishnu Deo Sai held a review meeting with top officials. He said that if any inconvenience was caused to the common people in terms of essential commodity shortages, disrupting the law-and-order situation, the Collector and Superintendent of Police of the district concerned would be held accountable.

In Madhya Pradesh, cities such as Bhopal, Indore and Jabalpur saw long lines of vehicles at fuel stations. Several driver unions and groups also staged demonstrations blocking the roads in parts of the State. Chief Minister Mohan Yadav held a virtual meeting with senior government officials and directed them to ensure that the public does not have to face any shortage of fuel or essential items. The State unit of the Congress hit out at the BJP government, with its president Jitu Patwari saying, “The hit-and-run law of the Central government has also been made on the lines of the black law of farmers, in which there is mention of dictatorial action against all the drivers.”

In Maharashtra’s Mumbai and Nagpur, long queues were witnessed at petrol stations. Chetan Modi, president of the Petrol Dealers Association, said that since Monday, the fuel supply to petrol pumps has been affected due to the ongoing agitation.

Stocks available in Kashmir

The situation was no different in Jammu and Kashmir as hundreds of vehicles lined up at the fuel stations. The J&K fuel station owners’ association said 90% of petrol pumps have gone dry in Jammu. They claimed that 1,500 tankers carrying fuel to the Union territory and to Ladakh were on strike. Asserting that the situation was under control, Kashmir Divisional Commissioner, V.K. Bidhuri admitted that the strike has had an impact, but asserted that the situation was under control, noting that 21 days’ stock of diesel and 24 days’ stock of petrol are available at depots in the Valley. Over 20 days’ worth of LPG stock is also available, he added.

In Himachal Pradesh, fuel pumps turned away motorists, saying that they had run out of petrol and diesel. In Manali, Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu said that, so far, the situation was under control but could worsen if the strike continued. He urged the Union government to understand the demands of the truck drivers.

Bus, truck drivers observe ‘Chakka Jam’ in Maharashtra against new hit-and-run law

‘No stock’ signs

In Telangana, some motorists were prepared and had their vehicles topped-up, but a majority were caught unawares and only realised what was in store when they witnessed the long lines at fuel stations. As word of the situation spread over social media, larger numbers poured into fuel stations for petrol and diesel top-ups. Several stations ran out and displayed “no stock” boards. Gig and platform workers and association office bearers said that their WhatsApp groups were flooded with delivery executives saying they had run out of fuel, and were forced to go offline in peak hours.

However, Telangana State Road Transport Corporation officials said that they do not foresee any immediate fuel paucity; they usually have diesel stocks that last them for about three days.

‘No road discipline’

Though there has been little impact in Tamil Nadu so far, P. V. Subramani, committee member, All India Motor Transport Congress, said that the strike had impacted Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and would not take much time to reach the State. “All our goods come from outside the State,” he added.

R. Vangili, Tamil Nadu State Lorry Owners Federation said that the new law was quite strong and due to this, the drivers have not allowed any trucks to run for three days. “Tuesday was the last of those three days. We can only wait and watch. Drivers will be affected only due to loss of salary if trucks don’t run. The owners and those sending goods are the ones who would be affected. While punishment is needed, the government must also understand that there is no road discipline, people drive as they please,” he said.

The State Lorry Owners Federation of Tamil Nadu (SLOFT) president C. Dhanaraj claimed that the percentage of hit-and-run cases by truck drivers was less than 2%, warning that the new law would allow the police to threaten drivers, which would increase bribery.

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