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Ramesh Kumar from New Delhi

Hello, read the title again.

Yes, “poor” and “truck driver” don’t go together. Believe me! That’s why I say, “poor truck driver” is an oxymoron. What’s an oxymoron? Good question. Oxymoron is a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.

Respect is a scarce commodity, as far as these truck drivers are concerned. That’s 100% true. Actually, drivers are rarely worried about such absence of courtesy from their bosses. Because at the end of each trip, they are laughing away to the bank, metaphorically speaking. They, simply put, are richer after every trip. Am not talking about owner-drivers, but pure vanilla drivers.

Worry not when drivers crib about they being paid poor or no payment even for months together. It’s sort of auto grievance loop. Switch on. Switch off mode. Cry babies when they get sympathetic shoulders to lean on.

There’s a caveat: am talking about drivers who have put in at least a decade long service. Long haul, I mean.

I repeat that long haul drivers with at least 10 years experience are well off. The wealth effect of this non-sexy career on their personal life is phenomenal. If I compare them with the supervisors or clerks at warehouses or other white collar jobs in any logistics/supply chain company (nobody calls themselves that they work for transport companies! It’s infradig!), they are way ahead. Financially.

This comparison is not way off. Do you know truck drivers pay no income tax. Why? Because no motor malik gives them salary in cheque. Actually, there are no salaries at all because there is no formal employer-employee relationship. Drivers get paid mostly on per km driven basis. That too, in cash. Cool.

Under this scheme, they collect a wad of currency notes as trip advance. Say, Rs.55,000 for a Delhi-Kolkota trip. This includes all expenses en route: toll fees, interstate border fees, daily fooding allowance, RTO mamool (yes, yes, this has been scientifically studied by motor maliks and factored in in their calculation). Fuel tanks, on long hauls, get filled at pre-determined oil outlets directly and cashless. Good. Sometimes, even the trip advance is NOT given in full, citing high probability of highway loot by hooligans/thugs, but parceled out at two or three midpoints either at their own branch office or some oil outlet. To cap it all, when the journey is completed, driver retains whatever left unspent plus. This plus is an interesting element: the unspent fuel as well. This unspent fuel is disposed off in many ways: sold to unscrupulous oil outlet dealers or to motor malik themselves at a “discounted” price! Or some crooks who are in the business of buying such fuel from long haul truck drivers and dispose it off to LCV owners in the local area, who again wish to buy at less than market price.

Though the RTO bribe is also factored in the aggregate trip expenses projection, smart drivers (most of them are!) have devised ways to eliminate this financial leakage totally or partially. Elimination of bribe is done via sleep-in-day and drive-in-the-night formula. It is most effective. Another route is to wait on the roadside – hours together sometime – when alerted of such highway vultures parked further ahead by victims moving in the opposite direction and proceed only when such dangers move away. Smart networking among the long haul truck driver fraternity. Night time drive is 100% safe and secured from this perspective. Strange logic.

Every single rupee saved out of trip expenses is the income for drivers. Yes, by hook or crook, they save – putting their own lives in danger at time, by taking the less traveled toll plaza-less roads (so they don’t shell out the user fee) and getting looted/hijacked or get killed at times as well. Risky, but they feel, it is rewarding.

Again, smarter drivers prefer to cook their own food wherever they are and thus avoid eating at truckers’ dhabas on highways which are definitely a high cost item. Two full meals coupled with multiple chai a day will make a big hole if partaken at dhabas. Add tobacco, bidi or cigarette etc. Smart drivers lead a contented life even on duty. There is also fringe elements that splurge money in all vices (women, narcotics etc.) besides eating at dhabas. They never save and therefore do not enjoy long term wealth effect.

Now, let us move to the other end of spectrum. What makes me so confident of declaring that they are not but well off? As stated above, a majority of drivers are not on payrolls and so are not eligible for sick or casual or privilege leave. The motor malik-driver relationship is a simple funda of “work and earn”. Put it differently, take time off from driving for whatever reasons and your money supply is disrupted. That’s, “no work, no money”.

Interestingly long haul drivers in any year take time off and return to their roots: to be with their family in remote villages – far away from the nearest decent motorable roads. This days off is not for a week or 10 days but for months at a stretch. Two questions: how do they manage during this “no earning” period? and what do they do during this “no earning” period?

The squirrelled or salted away money during the “running days” is the nest egg they dig into during this period of no earnings. Remember, the average size of long haul truck driver parivar is certainly above six: himself, spouse, two or three children and parents. The upper limit may be around a dozen even in some cases. Invariably, these drivers own a piece of land where they grow paddy, lentils, some vegetables – mostly for captive consumption. Occasionally, excess is disposed off in the local market. Not to be missed out is the cattle: cow or buffaloes, goats and hen. This ensures regular supply of milk, desi ghee, curd, eggs, chicken and mutton. Not to be bought from the bazaar. Fuel is also taken care of by free firewood collected in the neighbourhood and or cow dung cakes. All they may require are: matchbox, masala and salt.

So, very little outgo from earnings. However, the big expenses are on their children’s education and healthcare. One thing, the smart drivers are very clear: good education for wards, preferably in private schools where English is taught because they firmly believe this import from Her Majesty’s Government is a surefire Future Ready tool and then followed by decent college education. It should not surprise anyone to see and hear drivers’ children completing degree courses and taking up white collar jobs. Forward looking thoughts. (This is a clear signal that the supply is shrinking fast, courtesy poor driver relationship skills by the entire transport ecosystem.)

Healthcare is another area of big spend by them. Better hygiene is part of this need fulflilment. Given the peripatetic nature of driver-dad’s job, he is exposed to lifestyles of cityfolks or well-bred compared to a typical remote village confined farmer or local jobber. He observes and apes them and also passes on those self-learned tips to his wards whenever he is back home. Again, bulk purchased necessities are bought across cities wherein he moves around and sent home through other driver friends plying on his home route which then gets collected by a family member.

On the health side, drivers’ children are decently fed and face minor ailments since his family can afford to spend more on healthcare than non-driver families in the locality due to his higher earning capacity. Parents, of course, suffer from age-related maladies and healthcare is a challenge. Hereagain, driver son can handle this task better.

Leave all these things aside. Walk into any village or basti, where the driver parivar lives and ask for direction to his home. Don’t be surprised if the guide points to an “only house made of brick and cement” there. Mind you, when one reaches the desired destination, it won’t be an eye candy. Mostly, it would be brick-cement-brick in layers without a final coat of cement hiding bricks. No thatched huts of Satyajit Ray’s celluloid images of rural India! Rooms will be tiny – just enough space to accommodate one double cot and an almirah with very little space to move around. Not one,but several rooms of same size and structure.

There may be homes, painted both inside and outside. Window curtains. Fridge. TV sets. Ceiling fans. Mixers-Grinders. Sofa sets in the slightly larger front halls. Tubelights, underground water tanks. And, occasionally, toilets. Nike shoes, genuine or fake. On the mirror shelf, you name the toiletries and perfumes you can see in a town market or your own hoe, it will be there. Children wearing colourful T-shirts with messages which may not make any meaning to anyone (including the wearer!) in the village. Does not matter. The message to others in the village is that his family has “come off age” or well off. That’s a big statement. Not to be missed is the presence of motorcycle, for use by driver dad when he comes home who is picked from the nearest highway bus stand or railway station. One of his family jewels, so to say. Though not owning diamonds, gold certainly forms part of unscripted personal finance kitty. He may not have a Fixed Deposit with the local bank. Money is stored in raw form mostly – in rice tins and some pots. Or even inside cupboards. Not that he is not exposed to banking. He uses ATM to collect money from his motor malik while on the highways and also engages the ATM services to send money home regularly.

If brothers also happened to be drivers, still living together as a joint family with parents, then the number of rooms will be more proportionately. A separate larger room for parents near the entrance so that their movement to sit in the open poses no hindrance. In this age, though living together, daughter in laws cook separately. Occasionally, they cook jointly and eat together. That’s rare because driver brothers are never together at home at the same time.

The long absence away from steering trucks ferrying goods of all nature to feed and clothe 1.2 billion population is invariably used to join hands in harvesting the paddy, rebuilding old portion of his ancestral home or even adding few rooms on the ground floor and just above. Money is not an issue at all. He  has dope – in hard cash. Just chilling out with family. Attending family weddings. Or conducting his own kith and kin marriages. Nothing is beyond his reach.

The wealth effect (or prosperity) of driver clan becomes  apparent when one catches up with others in the same neighbourhood. Involved in farming, a seasonal work, they have more free time, idling. Little disposable income and the consequent lower living standards vis a vis his driver neighbour. One big boast of them is that they have more time for their family, unlike driver parivar. Well, there is always a trade off. Like the indifference curve: more work, less leisure or vice versa. That’s the life of driver careerist. Long home-aways, yes.

All said and done, a driver is definitely well off comparatively speaking. Had he not taken up this career, his existence would have been at par with his non-driver neighbour with more leisure, less work and therefore less income and the consequent lower living standard.

In my interaction with several thousand long haul truck drivers between 2010 and now (2016), I have never come across one paying any income tax! Whereas those who make fun of him or ill-treat him at head office, branch office, loading/unloading centres, factory or warehouse security guards or on highway babus all pay income tax!

Many a time, motor maliks have lambasted me for not sympathizing with their plight. They are actually shortchanged by truck drivers. Not a lie. At the same time, not 100% true. In fact, it is lucrative and advantages not to own a truck and become a chalak-se-malak! That’s also the reason why this wooing of truck drivers to become owner-cum-driver has not taken off in a big way. Did I not say that drivers, despite their ungainly and pathetic look and behaviour, are smarter? Looks are deceptive.

Have you ever seen a begging Sardar anywhere in India? I have not. Nobody, in fact. Similarly, I have not come across a poor truck driver (again, am not talking about owner-driver, because he got into an area beyond his core competence and unable to grasp other elements of trucking business).

POSTSCRIPT: On a November 2016 afternoon, met a lean and emaciated Bikha Singh outside Garware Synethic factory in Aurangabad. Asked about his monthly salary, he mentioned, “one thousand rupees”. He has been driving for the same Kolkota company for more than a decade. His parting shot was his fourth daughter is ready for betrothal and he is equally ready with cash! Three daughters already married off even while his declared monthly income of Rs.1,000. How did he manage this magic is a mystery. On second thoughts, it is no mystery! The untold or hidden wealth effect, huh!

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