RANDOM THOUGHTS/Ramesh Kumar from New Delhi

Half past four it was December 21, 2016 when Sandeep Pawar shut the engine of powerful Eicher Jumbo 20.16 at a wayside tea stall in Bagodar, situated on NH2 (or is it NH19?) There seems to be a lot of confusion over the numbering of National Highways. Actually, both signages exist on this age old grand trunk road linking Delhi with Kolkota.

Fellow traveller, Virendra Choudhry, shook me up from the rear seat-cum-bed where I was in deep slumber post-dinner somewhere in Bihar a few hours ago. No sooner did I climb out, he jumped in from his window seat where he was sleeping braving the sub-10 degree Celsius nasty December end wind in a sitting Buddha pose with his windcheater as his protective. For him, sleep in proper reclining position was more important than a hot cuppa at the roadside tea vendor. Each has his own priority.

Sandeep and his elder brother, Suresh, were already out, placing order for tea with the stall owner or whoever he was standing near the oven with the face fully covered with a woollen blanket, reminding me of the Chambal Valley dacoits. I quietly moved to a dark corner next to the shop to empty my bursting bladder. For me, that was the priority Number One. From the corner of my eyes, I found Sandeep suddenly squatting outside the stall and digging into a hole in the wall with a stick. “Some more,” I heard the stall hand goading. Suddenly, a burst of flame leapt up from the oven mouth revealing salient features of the vendor-tea-maker. Quite a young guy with a twirling moustache. The flame did disturb his equipoise as he retreated two feet away from where he was a few seconds ago. Heat effect, of course. The woollen blanket had come off, revealing his dirty banian.

Under the burning filament bulb, I noticed another customer sitting inside the stall waiting for his cuppa, perhaps. Passing trucks in both direction was the only noise makers at this hour. Even the black dog inside the stall  decidedly kept to himself, unmoved by the trucks on the highway hardly a few yards away. Bone numbing chillness prevented any dramatic but futile chasing, maybe.

“Here, it is!” saying this, the stall owner thumped the glass of tea on the narrow parapet near the oven without spilling. It is an art. Unless one’s a professional, this operation would not be sucessful. All three of us stood very close to the oven to experience the warmth. Heavenly. Alas, this moment of pleasure would not and could not last long. Why? Because we have to move on. Life is like that. Good or bad situations. They don’t last long. Instead, they come and go. Pleasure and pain are part of everything.

In three gulps, I finished off the hot, extra or extremely sugary tea. Hmmm. So much of sugar? Good for health? Don’t think. But never seen any driver drinking sugarless or less sugared chai. How do they manage such kheer-like hot stuff? My blood sugar level would shoot up like Diwali time rocket, catapulted from the narrow necked tall glass bottle once lit. It took some time for me to understand the extra sugary phenomenon. That’s until my Uttrakhandi trekking friend Himanshu Joshi who had long ago pointed to trekkers and mountainers carrying chocolates as swift energy boosters. Drivers use extra sugary tea for similar purpose. Dhanyaho, Himanshu!

I returned to the truck to find Virender snoring blissfully. Poor chap, let him sleep.No, he is not suffering from driver fatigue but from passenger fatigue – sitting all the way since the previous morning near Nagpur.

Still the Pawar brothers were outside. Not idling but managed to lit a campfire with some quickly found firewood in the neighbourhood and a small piece of rubber tyre. Let me enjoy a little extra warmth a little longer. Soon, the brothers hopped in: one occupied the driver seat and the other managed to squeeze himself in the narrow space between me at the window seat and the gear stick: something in the shape of “S”. Most accommodative. No complaints. Patience embodied. That’s typical of any long haul driver. Maybe, what’s the point of cribbing if that would not solve problem. Bear it. Chin up. Life learning lesson.

As the three month new Eicher Jumbo 20.16 moved from the tea stall, the onrush of cold window via the dashboard duct hit me hard on the face. I pulled the full sleeve sweater over my fingers on both hands trying to protect them and thrust both hands between my thighs for extra comfort.

How come these long haul drivers don’t carry any warm clothes? They usually carry a whole load of them to ward off chillness in northern India. The Pawar brothers, it is no secret, are from Maharashtra and significantly, it is their maiden driving experience in north India. Until the present trip, they never crossed Gujarat. This time, they had a pharma load from Vizag to Chandigarh and then a fresh butter load from Karnal to Kolkota at minus three degree celsius temperature-controlled reefer. How do they beat bone-chilling cold? Palm-rubbing is the only option. A Mumbai sweater is of no use in north Indian winter. Emptying out tambakoo pouches at regular intervals. Of course, occasional chai.

Remembered the death of a long haul truck driver working for Credence Logistics (a Mittal group company)  who had died due to severe cold near Karnal three years ago while locked inside the truck cabin. Yes, he died due to severe cold in sleep and the cabin window had to be broken to gain access. Also remembered the ensuing drama between the spouse and children of the deceased driver living somewhere in Bihar and the company officials. The dispute was over where to cremate the body. While the company insisted at Karnal itself, the family insisted on taking the body to their village at the company cost. No doubt, the company was in no mood to oblige. Then came the drama of some compensation for the deceased driver, who unfortunately had joined a fortnight ago and that was his maiden trip. Well, drivers of the company pooled and added to the paltry package offered by the management. I was engaged in getting the money handed over to the bereaved family – almost after nine months with a lot of cajoling. Someone collected but hesitant to part with it to the family quickly.

Window glasses down, the vehicle strode at 55 km/hour speed. Cycles with stolen – or ‘appropriated’ – coal from the Dhanbad mines were being pushed on the shoulders of the narrow NH19 to some marketplace. Soon we crossed the Chirkunda exit point  on Jharkhand side and noticed the empty and locked up offices of Commercial Tax department, except a police guard sitting on a chair and reading a local daily unmindful of the passing cargo-laden trucks. What about the behati of exiting Jharkhand with stamping before outting? No one asked. No  one bothered.

Next was a 100 metres bridge over a water-less canal. This was where the asli drama began to unroll. We were on the edges of West Bengal. It was the Duburdih Checkpost – the entry point of West Bengal from Uttarakhand. A bunch of people ran towards our vehicle and began demanding “kagaz (paper)” – which any cargo-laden vehicles on highways carry consisting of documents pertaining to vehicle, cargo and driver.

Drivers are used to this kind of happenings and Suresh chose one out of several extended arms to part with his papers. The ‘collector’ dashed off to the officials of department of commercial tax of West Bengal government sitting behind a desk on the highway itself with barricades behind them. Following an ‘entry’ in their books, our driver was asked to cross into West Bengal territory – cross the barricades and park on the left.

Suresh parked our vehicle and got out to go to the building. We did follow. What an ungainly sight it was? Paan stains in the narrow corridor and  the stench from the pool of cattle or dog urine was unbearable. While Suresh was busy interacting with the person who collected papers and the sleepy-eyed man behind the grilled window, the thought of the poor maintenace of public interactive point disturbed. Is it because the visitors to this narrow corridor is the lowly truck drivers? Is that the reason, why the officers sat on the highway itself? Felt like asking them, but refrained.

Sensing the process was taking longer than one imagined, we returned to the truck. A five feet eight inch figure in leather jerkin and black eye glasses  with a sidekick approached us.

“Is this your vehicle?”

Yes, affirmed Virendra Choudhary, Director of Allgor Supply Chain Solutions Pvt Limited, a Mumbai-based 3PL specialising in cold supply chain: meaning, doing business focused on carrying perishable items only. In fact, this was the maiden trip of this company’s vehicle to West Bengal and hence he wanted to acclimatize himself with the regulatory regime of the state he would be doing business with.

“Do you know, Bengal government charges a special fee for reefers based on number of tires,” said Dayamoy Mondal, our new-found friend or guide. Without batting an eyelid, he continued: “Your reefer has six tires and hence you have to pay Rs.6,350/-. Thank God, yours’ is not a 10 or 12 tires. If so, the tax would have shot up over Rs.10,000/-” said he with a chuckle.

By the way, who is Mondal? “Are you from Commercial Tax Department?”I asked him to get this doubt cleared as quickly as possible. Pat came the response: No. Then? Who was he?

“I am a dalal. Agent, in your parlance,” he quipped. “We help drivers and smoothen their passage into Bengal….. Of course, we charge a small fee for our services,” he added.

Mondal has been operating in the same location for several years, “serving” stumped drivers daily and fleet owners like Virendra Choudhary occasionally when they decide to step out of their chambers to get a hang of ground reality.

His fee, he disclosed, is a paltry Rs.100/-

Will this reefer tax be receipted by the department?

Yes, he assured. That’s good.

What’s needed? Nothing, get your vehicle papers and come with me. Of course, with money!

Suresh Pawar climbed into the cabin, picked vehicle papers, collected Rs.6,350 from Choudhary. By then, Mondal quickly vanished to remerge in his motorbike – strangely with no number plate – signaled our driver to hop onto the pillion. No helmets. So much for Road Safety in the state of West Bengal where the highways are plastered with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s mug beseeching general public to follow road rules in the interest of their own safety. Look at this Mondal.

Mondal and Suresh were away for a decent 30 minutes. We brushed and had a few boilled eggs and chai breakfast at the  nearest roadside eatery. We roamed around the area and noticed reefers belonging to Snowman Logistics, a publicly listed company, as well with no driver in sight. Sure, he would have been picked by some other ‘dalal’ for the same special reefer tax collection exercise.

Several other trucks were parked on the same stretch and hawkers of sticker and danglers were busy trying to sell their stuff to reluctant drivers. One of them came and sat next to us and narrated that no vehicle could move into Bengal without these dalals’ intervention. They are vital, we were told. Reefer or no Reefer, some paper or other is required. Drivers are invariably unaware of minute details. Unless one is a TCI or VRL, you have no beach heads at crutical junctions to facilitate theirs trucks and drivers.

If one looks at the transport ecosystem holistially, it will become apparent that long haul drivers are multi-taskers. Just not drivers. Driving is one little task they perform. Other major task  is: Road Management. That is, escaping 18 highway vultures if possible to avoid bribing; getting border crossing documents checked and gain entry from one state to another; safeguarding cargo and fleet. and of course, their own safety thorughout the journey. For performing all these tasks, they receive peanuts. Zilch, actually. Visualize a scenario wherein fleet owners/transport companies have to deploy their own staf with an office (even it is desk space) at every such beach head, then their operational cost would shoot up. Clever guys, they quietly passed on the burden to less privileged and uneducated drivers to manage all these. Still crib a lot about the disloyalty of drivers to their maliks! Cruel world.

In the absence of a well established branch network, external assistance is a MUST. Hardly a couple of hours ago, the previous night at the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border, while getting the Behati done at a quick service providers’den, watched several long haul drivers walking in seeking some form of authorisation or letter which two young college-going students facilitated for a fee. Private enterprise.

No sooner did our driver Suresh Pawar and “Dalal” Mondal returned from the Mission, Choudhary’s first query: “kaam hogaya?” (Has the work got done?).

“How can it not be over with me around?” a boastful Mondal responded.

Choudhary took the clerance document and receipt. The billed amount was Rs.6,000/-

Naturally, the question was that we paid Rs.6,350/- but the receipt was for Rs.350 less. Why?

“Sir, Without that extra Rs.350/-, this document would not have been possible. It is an unreceipted fee paid to the officer,” Mondal explained matter of factly.

Pure vanilla bribe. Illegal gratification. We did not like a wee bit. Remembered the grand campaign of the Corruption campaign unleashed by the new AIMTC President S K Mittal. This blatant corrupt practice is happening in his home state viz., West Bengal.

Okay. When we looked at the document, it said that the  validity of this special reefer tax is co-terminus with the entry permit of vehicle. Though the special reefer tax collected is termed as annual fee – meaning a validity of 12 months, it is actually valid for much lesser period – unless your reefer enters West Bengal on the date it got its Entry permit issued by the same government. It is a rare occurrence. At times, reefer vehicles have to reconcile to pay the Rs.6,000/- tag for a few days or weeks because of the co-terminus clause.

It is time, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries and the National Coldchain Centre for Development (NCCD) – the think tank advising the Ministry of Agriculture – examine such loopholes in the tax strucutre of states as well in the wider interest of reducing agri-waste nationwide. Or will the impending GST rollout remove this obnoxious Rs.6,000/- annum entry tax sort? Let’s hope so.

Now, it was the turn of settling fees with Mondal. He was not happy with the original demand of Rs.100 and got extra Rs.50/- from us.

The beaming Mondal, who handles at least a dozen reefers in any 24 hour cycle – yes, he works round the clock because reefers ply 24×7 – makes a cool sum daily. “It is a tough job, Sir! There is no holiday for us.” adds he.

Is everything okay? “Worry not, Sir! If anyone (RTO) stops you before you reach Kolkota, tell them this vehicle is Mondal’s. They won’t bother you!”

What confidence! What suave!

Choudhary said: “Kya setting!” (What a perfect arrangement like a well oiled machine by rent-seekers!)

Does every single vehicle cough up this extra Rs.350 as bribe to the West Bengal officer? “If any transporter or fleet owner – however big or small – claims he is honest and does not pay this money, he is the biggest liar. Take it from me. No bribe. No business,” asserts Mondal. By the way, the Mandarins in Federal government’s Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (MoRT&H) grudgingly admit. This time, his sun glasses are off the nasal perch. So there is a perfect eye to eye contact.

If transporters’ lobby groups such as AIMTC, AITWA and ACOGOA can fight to  eliminate this bribery act at all checkposts, what will happen to the likes of Mondal? I actually ask him. “Sir, deprive us of our livelihood. We are also service providers. Good at that. Don’t beleive? Next time, try getting your paperwork done at this point and see for yourself. You would 100% declare  if only someone like Mondal was here now…” is how he dispels my cobwebs.

No Mondal. Refusal to bribe. This will lead to the reefer’s fuel reserves deplete and emptied out. So, temperature control will become non-functional. What’s there to control? Perishable cargo will, yes, perish. So, let reefer transporters perish the thought of not bribing. Pay and Proceed. Legally and  Illegally. What a nation? Father of Nation Mahatma Gandhi would be turning in his grave.

Mondal shakes hands with each one of us. Before we could climb into our reefer, “Sir, here’s my business card. Take it. Anytime, any help required, don’t hesitate. Call me! Mein hoon na! …. Spread the word among drivers passing through this route.”

Seedy character? No, not at all. Smart businessman. He is using everyone as his business development manager. He may not possess a degree from IIMs, but a professional with a clear strategy. Win-win for both customer and himself. Deadly.

We said, we would be his business development executives. Sorry, Mr Mittal! We  failed miserably at the very first step in joining your noble Fight Against Corruption battle. We’re corrupted. Uff.

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