On 23rd June Moneylife had organised an online discussion on Truck De India, the critically acclaimed travelogue put together by Rajat Ubhaykar, a recipient of the PoleStar Award in 2016 for his reportage. Ubhaykar embarked on a 10,000 km-long, 100% unplanned trip, hitchhiking with truckers across India, and has revealed valuable insights into this largely neglected segment of the national transport industry. We present here a response that incorporates 30+ years of the author Veeresh Malik’s hands-on experience in multimodal transport.
What was a conversation on truck drivers as the backbone of India's commercial and therefore internal and external security strengths, needed some more driver inputs, and so I wish to put my point of view across - hopefully as an ex-truck driver myself and now on behalf of the drivers.
On one side, we have the future steel frame of the country presenting us with one of the best first-point of observations in book form on the roads and highways of India that I have read in a while. We have on the other, the unsung realities of the men and women of the wheels on our roads and highways, from our past, present and future, who are needed to keep this country rolling. As an ex-seafarer who worked on every aspect of intermodal movement of bulk solid, bulk liquid, and unitised cargo, by land, air, and sea - I hope to try to add a wee bit of value to another interesting session from Moneylife Foundation.
I had the opportunity to attend, learnt a lot, as well as place my views across on the subject here -
Truck drivers and truck owners are largely on opposite poles in terms of objectives, and since one of them has the grey market finance industry under their belt, you will never see popular cinema or even news media bringing out the truths of the other side. One of the few movies that brings this truth out - the huge divide between objectives for owners and drivers - is MILESTONE or MEEL PATHAR.
In peninsular India, a good truck driver with about 10-years of stable experience, medically cleared for substance abuse as well as overall health, with certification on competencies of various sorts, shall cost his employer Rs70,000 monthly and above, higher for buses. One reason for this is that the minimum wages for a security guard on a 12-hour shift when taken together with all other add-ons, can easily cost a client Rs40,000 to Rs45,000 per month (chart below). The incentive for a good truck driver, already in demand at much higher ‘packages’ abroad, to work under inhospitable conditions is simply not there anymore in most of long-distance commerce.
Certainly, things have improved - "vegetable express" concepts (brought out so well in Rajat's book ‘Truck De India: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to India’) now extend also to cargo consolidated in containers being moved on trunk routes for online sellers and buyers.
Information the book shares on the back-up those truck drivers get in terms of quality of vehicle, maintenance, relay driver teams, complete adherences to everything and owners and the vehicle, as well as official back-up en-route at literally every ‘point, naka or checkpost’, must be seen to be believed.
This includes the difference in driver comfort and facilities provided by owners going in for factory-built trucks vs local truck bodies built on cowl-and-chassis (basically cowl trucks are trucks that do not come with a built-up cabin and coach built around the vehicle chassis). You can see this best on the roads in peninsular India - and it is not just about air-conditioned factory-built driver cabins. It is also about the higher safety levels built in.
As a background, intermodal transport was my profession, and I was there when the final frontier had just been introduced in India, in the late 1980s - in the form of import and export bonded and sealed containers on trains to and from seaports.
The choices were very simple then - the time taken by a truck from North India to, say, Mumbai or Chennai was between one-third and one-fourth of the time taken by train. Or even worse if the rail shipment went adrift.
The cost to customer by truck was about double, or less, but always more than what it was by train - and the biggest benefit to exporters and importers was that the documentation and ‘formalities’ were done in the shipper and consignee's backyard - not in a seaport far away.
Today, for cargo movements, I mentioned 600kms as an optimal number beyond which trucks did not make sense, but was later corrected by friends in the industry that this number is now down to 400-500kms except in border hilly areas where trains are not available.
Everywhere else, especially but not just trunk routes, trains are way faster than road, and the costs are very competitive - so competitive, that it now often makes a lot of sense to simply load the truck on the train, whether for export or for domestic movements.
We have all seen the way oxygen tankers were moved over rail in the last few months, and before that, the huge increase in roll-on-roll-off (RoRo) traffic over rail mostly on the Konkan Railway sector. The movement of containers by rail is way better than any other option now, with connectivity and transit measured in decimal points of an hour, and some container trains being designated ‘ConRaj’ as short form for ‘Container Rajdhani’ - with matching speeds and no passenger complaints about food.
The big issue in India, despite the goods and services tax (GST) and e-Way bills is simply this – ‘borders’ between states are bad lands. Tri-junctions are even worse. With the direct freight corridor throwing open multiple options, including parcel goods consolidation terminals at way-points, the future is more long-distance trains and more short-distance trucking. Which is why good highways and railway lines are being built all over India, not just on trunk routes. Do check this link for more details https://indiarailinfo.com/atlas
Note - river cargo is still stuck in the realities of a monsoon dependent flow in most parts of India - but coastal shipping is truly on a brilliant trajectory. The ministry concerned, remember, works closely with the Railways, and is also the ministry for water transport.
There is a holistic approach towards commercial traffic in India, which legacy transporters stuck in commission driven grey market and finance games will find difficult to even begin to understand. For them, the writing is on the wall, and time waits for no-one. The most absurd suggestion that roads be built only for truck traffic reveals the lack of understanding of ground and water realities. Do check this link for more details https://www.iprcl.in/
(Veeresh Malik is an activist from Delhi, who continues to explore several things in life.)