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RANDOM THOUGHTS/Ramesh Kumar from New Delhi

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“Airconditioned cabin for trucks? Are you okay?” is the response I got from a well known transporter. Not yesterday or today. Long ago. The context was having spotted a Volvo truck with a windmill mast and blades as payload waiting on the Tamilnadu-Bengaluru border. The  question came up because it was an open secret that Volvo sold its ghodas only if potential buyers wish to accept airconditioned cabins six years ago. Today, I have no idea.

So, on spotting the Volvo long trailer, I halted to chat up the fairly large crew busy cooking food and washing clothes on the roadside. I was quite familiar with the transport company and its owner.

“How is the airconditioner working?” I asked.

“What airconditioner? It does not work.” was the response.

Why?

Once the gas got over, the company decided not to go for refills. Truck drivers need no airconditioning was perhaps the pulse. When I reached out to the owner, he requested me to visit his Delhi office on my return which I did. Pointing to the full speed rotating ceiling fan, he diplomatically replied that if he as owner and multicrore businessman could go without an airconditioner and settle for an electric fan, his driver could as well. I got his message.

Well, that’s the attitude. Airconditioner is an unnecessary spend. Moreover recurring. Drivers are used to hot and humid working atmosphere and therefore, why infuse a new habit. Put it mildly, they  don’t deserve. Wrong mindset.

It brought back memories of what happened at Reliance textile mills in Ahmedabad in 1980s when assembly lines were aircooled to make working environment better for mill workers. Textile Mill Association babus laughed away at this novelty, little realizing how the Ambanis scripted a massive turnaround with huge productivity gains, thaks to the aircooled workspace. Recently, I had a chance of visiting a similar facility in the south and the cool loomroom did not surprise me. Good industrial practices, huh? Surprisingly, I was told that the special aircooling system was to “safeguard” the costly equipments installed in that facility!

Times are changing. Even the government has woken up to the need to make it compulsory for new trucks spinning out  of assembly lines with airconditioning from April 1, 2017. Why the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (MoRTH) did what it did through a notification recently?

One need not be a rocket scientist or a transport economist to decode the government psyche. Simply put, its objective was two fold: reduce incidence of accidents on highways due to driver fatigue and secondly, make long haul trucking a desirable career option for the less or underprivileged.

Why these twin goals were important? Today, even a high school student would disgorge the unhealthy data of India topping the global accidents table: 150,000 last year (2015-16). Though commercial vehicles involved in such accidents are approx. 11 per cent, the impact was not lost. Lack of structured driver training and certification in the absence of driver training schools (whatever we can spot can be counted on one’s finger tips. Only, that many!) and therefore, untrained men behind steering wheels of heavy commercial vehicles is one of the key issues. Besides lack of training, driver cabin comfort led to the much accepted, but totally ignored concept of driver fatigue which also caused accidents.

Perhaps, the question that was bugging the mandarins in Parivahan Bhawan would have been how to address the looming driver shortage – 22 per cent? How to bring in a certain amount of “sex appeal” to truck driving profession? With someone like the hardnosed Nitin Gadkari as Transport Minister breathing down their necks, the mandarins perhaps have seen an ideal tool in airconditioning of truck cabins in addressing this issue.

It is not out of place to share two personal experiences: August 2012, this writer had a chance to travel in an airconditioned truck (Tata Prima, yes it was) from Jamshedpur to Chennai with Tata Steel load, courtesy Toll Global Logistics headquartered in Chennai. With two drivers and the running time of 20 hours out of every 24 hours (with 4 hour halt between 12 midnight and 4 next morning for rest for both drivers), it was a pleasant and smooth drive. No sweat, literally speaking. The dashboard and cabin comfort were stupendous. The driver could tilt his seat whichever way he wanted. So, no question of stiffness. Second experience was an interaction with a driver of a chemical tanker from Ahmedabad to Lucknow at Ajmer. The wannabe driver students of IL&FS Driver Training School at Ajmer, whom this writer was with, literally gatecrashed into the Scania driver cabin (20 of them!) and almost refused to climb down. Such was the look and feel and comfort.Yes, of course, it was airconditoned. Do you know that at the height of summer, driving between 12 noon and 5 or 6 in the evening is abhorred by long haul drivers? They argue that it is “uncomfortable” to drive in that searing heat and not to be missed out is the impact on tyres when they ply on heated up highways.

Yes, the key question is whether fleet owners would like to shell out extra for airconditioning? Will they ensure gas refill as and when required? Wise fleet owners would not and should not hesitate to introduce this revolutionary move. After all, the ultimate beneficiaries would be themselves via longer km coverage per day which would result in quicker turnaround time. So, less idling of vehicle. More money in their kitty. Drivers too would be happy to drive in such comforts. OEMs – the end users – should be ready to relook at the freight rates in the overall interest of the most vital supply chain link: transportation and truck drivers.

How serious is the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM)’s view that April 1, 2017 deadline is too short for HCV OEMs to implement this mandatory decision? It is not a fear, but concern about the members’ ability to cope with a fresh challenge within such a short timeframe. Actually, it is not fresh at all. OEMs ought to have factored this eventuality on their own long ago. What is the point of these OEMs trundling out trucks if there are few takers? It is a question of business sustainability. By the way, Gadkari has been talking about this more than a year ago in informal gatherings with stake holders and later in March 2016 he did share with the Parliament. That is, this issue has been in the public domain for long. No opposition party would be willing to stall proceedings against this labour-friendly move, even if voting is required. It is an executive decision actually, needing no such blessings.

Second, most importantly, SIAM contention that this is not a safety issue but a comfort issue and therefore should be left to potential buyer is nothing short of washing one’s hands off. Is safety not an issue for SIAM? Strange logic.

It is pertinent to point out that the manufacturers have come together under the banner of SIAM. Transporters have not one, but three bodies: one big boy viz., All India and Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) and two junior siblings: All India Transporters’ Welfare Association (AITWA) and All India Confederation of Goods Vehicle Owners Association (ACOGOA). These lobby bodies have a huge presence in the political capital of India viz., New Delhi to submit their wish list to the powers that be.  Unfortunately, drivers have no such body to represent their interests. Trade Unions such as INTUC, AITUC, CITU, BMS mostly represent organized labour’s interest. Not the unorganized – read ununionized truck drivers.

So, they are orphans, with none to voice their grievances. Therefore, it is an uneven equation: with truck makers and transporters/fleet owners on one side and truck drivers on the other. The latter, realized that their interests are not looked after. Hence, their numbers are dwindling, leading to a classic supply-demand mismatch. That’s where we are talking about 22% shortage of drivers, not of trucks. High time, a benevolent view is taken regarding making driver cabin a comfy zone to move freight with less discomfort.Yes, it will add to the final price tag. A few thousand rupees more? In the interest of saving a human life from potential disaster, no amount is unbearable.

Until the government made Corporate Social Responsibility mandatory, CSR spend was nothing to write home about. Today, the scenario is marginally different in the sense that while allocation is mandatory, not the actual spending with no penalty for  not spending. Hereagain, the government diktat played a role which India Inc should have done on its own, with no pressure from government via legislation.

It is one’s sincere hope that everyone will fall in line in the ultimate national interest. That’s for sure. We, Indians like Prof.Amartya Sen famously said are “argumentative”. Negotiation is in our DNA. But that phase is more or less is over with the current political dispensation. All of us are getting used to a little more disciplined way of doing things in our country. Yes, it would be a bit of a challenge, but we will gradually accept. After all, such baby steps would ultimately held building a “Great India” and boast about it on the backs of trucks.

If Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad Prof Ganesan Raghuram (currently on a road trip to Agra and back to his perch) were to be believed, trucks have already begun replacing “OK” with “Great India” tags on their rear bumpers. High hopes. Good for all.

Thanda, thanda, cool, cool!

One Response to Let’s Not Fiddle With Safety!

  • I fully agree with the idea of providing air-conditioned cabins. In a truck costing 40 lacs providing an airon conditioner of 50000 adds only 1.25 % and I expect even if leads to 5% increase in productivity it pays for itself . It is like power steering which now has become must have . Air conditioned cabs will be factory built having more safety and aerodynamic figures

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