Ramesh Kumar from New Delhi
After the late Chittranjan Dass, the Bhishma Pitamaha of Indian transport sector whom I revere the most, the next man in my list of Knowledge Warriors is Om Prakash Pareek, the Chartered Accountant. The ripe financial wizard has had a long innings with this unorganized segment looking into the nitty-gritties of finances of the biggest of big transport companies. A lot of what he shared will make John le Carre jump out of his seat. So much of drama, thrill and financial chutzpah or shenanigan.
Met him last evening (December 2, 2016) in his 8×4 feet chambers in central New Delhi to pick his brains on the impact of GST roll out and the demonetisation on his pet peeved segment along with Transport Mitra’s Selvan Dasaraj. The pivot of discussion obviously veered around to the truck drivers and when he heard their super financial status from Dasaraj following his recent road trip in Maharashtra, Pareek saab quipped: “You’ve been writing about the pathetic lives of theirs but now I hear (from you), things are hunky dory. How come?” Well, he did not expect such a rosy picture from me and was pleasantly surprised.
It was my turn to clarify that my concern about long haul truck drivers was – and is – not about their financial status but pathetic human treatment or lack of wayside amenities en route meted out. My hunch is that they will not accede to a proper monthly salary structure even if fleet owners offer them. Why? the mutual distrust between them and their owners is blackhole deep. That is, bottomless.
Interacting with more than 100,000 long haul truck drivers since 2010, I can claim under oath that they have upgraded their status in their community where they live with better housing, better dressing, better education etc. all via earnings from drivery. Any driver who has put in 10 years is well off vis-a-vis his neighbourhood non-driving professional (carpenter, helper at construction sites, farm labourer, cook etc.).
In this climate of lack of proper employment structure and therefore no casual or sick or annual leave proviso, I have noticed drivers taking time off from driving for a few months (upto six months) to return home to attend to family work. What’s that? Building a pucca brick-and-mortar home, adding extra rooms, attending to harvest of their fields growing paddy,marrying off daughters or sons or whatever, or simply spending time with family. All these activities without no concern for loss of income for such a long stretch of time. The salaried class – you and me – will keep looking at the end of annual leave last date to resume duty so that our earnings are not dented. There is no such tension among drivers.
Take the case of long haul drivers, who have met with accidents and recovering at home for months together. Don’t forget their earning capacity has been reconfigured to zero. Still they live. Believe it or not, their nest egg is keeping them alive or family support system is robust till they return to work. When? Tough to guess because the healing process is long.
Once again, the spotlight is on their financial agility. Like I said, experienced drivers with at least a decade long exposure have saved and invested wisely in creating wealth in the form of land, jewels, children’s education etc. Teaching them personal finance is a blasphemy. They know their onions. Like their motor maliks who have again wisely invested in real estate or creating warehousing facilities or hotels etc with long term appreciation in mind, drivers are equally smart. Never underestimate them.
Another interesting trend to watch from financial agility angle is the changing relationship among small and medium fleet owners – of say, 5 trucks. Drivers are co-opted as partners with profit sharing, not per kilometre or monthly salary parameters. There is greater transparency and lesser idling of vehicle. It is a win-win arrangement. For driver-partners, a dash of pride as well.
An area where they need guidance is on non-driving aspects such as building business networking, creating invoices, chasing payment etc. There, they are found wanting. There is none to educate them on these aspects. The mushrooming online exchange platforms and aggregators ride on this shortcoming by providing backhand business support: fetching orders and facilitating payment. However, even in this set up owner-drivers remain mentally
‘drivers’, leaving the core aspect of business development to third parties. In fact, they have outsourced this vital area. Will their educated wards step in to fill this breach and help parents build trucking business? Unlikely.
Why? The society has not learnt to respect these vital supply chain linkage. Fleet owners have a severe class conscious mindset and hence maintain a huge distance from drivers, leaving the unscrupulous middle management to manipulate. Transporters and broking agents are no angels with their eagle eyes on profiteering. 3PLs, having secured business promising OEMs higher productivity gains, seldom miss the opportunity to tweak freight cost. Of course, OEMs love this strategy. Bottomline focus, indeed. Add the pathetic and unfriendly attitude of highway authorities whose sole goal to fleece the hapless drivers.
So, in the light of such an unfriendly attitude of all and sundry drivers cohabiting with, fresh induction of workforce as truck drivers will be in driplets. Hence, the shortage touted to be around 22% will persist, if not shooting up.
My key concern is: Forget the current demonetisation impact on GDP for the next few quarters. Long term growth in double digits is assured. Don’t forget the ambition or goal to push the contribution of manufacturing to 25% from the present 16%. This necessitates infrastructure build up. Leave aside, ports, roads, rail etc. Truck manufacturers will be happy to ride on this boom ahead. Better roads in the offing. Better vehicles in the offing. Unless, we Indians foresee the advent of driverless trucks on the Indian highways much before they become popular in the western world, where are the men to be seated behind the steeting wheels of these new vehicles to be found?
Or are we imagining the fast roll out of multimodal – rail and coastal shipping – that will drastically reduce the share of road transport from 70% enjoyed now? Still, that is no solution. After all, there is the issue of first and last mile connectivity.
Yeah, the future is alluring. Challenges aplenty. Road buidling industry has matured. Vehicle manufacturing is already matured. What about the transport segment? Anybody’s guess.
We, as a Nation, have everything to reach the Himalayan heights. As far as truck drivers are concerned – the backbone of any economy – the issue is not about money, but about respect. Dignity of labour. We, Indians, are found wanting. There is a huge deficit on that score. Time to bridge that gap. Not difficult, actually. Why not make a sincere attempt without any further delay? Ready? If not, better be. Otherwise, prepare for returning to the Cave Age.
The writer is an ethnographer focused on long haul truck drivers and their families. Traveled 25,000 Km in trucks and spent time in their villages since 2010, penned three books and runs KRK Foundation, a Registered Trust, to improve their working & living standards. Reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org