Business Today

Song of the road

N. Madhavan | Print Edition: May 1, 2011

Friday, 11 p.m. A 16-tonne, single-axle Tata truck is ready to depart from the Central Warehousing Corporation's container freight station in Chennai. It will travel to Mumbai carrying a cargo of garments for shipment to Europe. Over the next two days, it will cover 1,335 km along the picturesque National Highway 4, or NH 4 - the Chennai-Mumbai corridor of the Golden Quadrilateral, the network of super-smooth four- and six-lane expressways intended to provide world-class connectivity to the four metros of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai.

The truck carries two unusual passengers: this writer and a photographer, on assignment to check if the Golden Quadrilateral has made long-haul transportation of goods by road any more efficient and convenient or safe. The Chennai-Mumbai stretch has been chosen since it connects four of the 10 most populous cities of the country: Chennai, Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai.

Currently, 65 per cent of goods in the country are transported by road. Modest at first glance, the truck's cabin, on closer inspection, turns out to be surprisingly tech-heavy: it has an LCD TV, a DVD player, a cellphone charger and even a Global Positioning System, or GPS. Chennai traffic is unrelenting even late at night, and getting out of the city takes time. In the first 80 minutes we cover barely 28 km. Our first stop is at Kaveripakkam, 75 km north from Chennai, for fuel. "I never fill my 250-litre tank to capacity. Theft is very common on the highway when we stop to eat or rest and the truck is left unguarded,'' says Som, the 27-year-old truck driver. He explains that he does so because it helps to limit losses if indeed fuel is stolen during the journey.

Driver's expenses
Som says he will make two more halts along the route to refuel. With each of these stoppages taking 20 minutes, he will lose about an hour during the journey, but he does not mind. For truck drivers, fuel, as much as time, is money. They need to save on both.

As we trundle through Andhra Pradesh in the dead of night, the driver explains why. The truck operator, he reveals, has given him a lump sum of Rs 16,300 to cover both his expenses during the trip, and his wages for the assignment. The breakup is as follows: Rs 12,000 for diesel, Rs 3,000 for paying toll and bribes, and Rs 1,300 as his payment - drivers like Som are paid per trip, not per month. Whatever he manages to save will be his to keep.

We reach Kolar town in Karnataka at dawn on Saturday. The driver's cabin has grown uncomfortably cold. Here, the industrial topography of the earlier stretch in Andhra gives way to verdant fields dotted with vineyards, potato crops and flowers.

To foster time saving as well, says Som, some fleet operators offer incentives to drivers - he will get an additional Rs 1,200 if he makes it to Mumbai in less than 48 hours. But the amount he can save by conserving fuel is roughly the same. For him, the ideal situation is when he is able to save both time and fuel - as he does, immediately after Kolar.

Fuel saving tactics
Just past Kolar, the truck veers off the highway, taking a narrow side road. "I am by-passing Bangalore and its heavy traffic," the driver says. This route being 40 km shorter, he will not just save diesel but also a couple of hours of travel. An added bonus is that he will be able to avoid one of the toll gates and pocket the toll fee of Rs 100, he explains.

Fuel conservation is ingrained in Som. Every time the vehicle hits a slope, he shifts into neutral gear and shuts off the engine, relying solely on the weight of the cargo he is carrying to propel the truck forward. He keeps doing it for nearly a fifth of the distance he covers. "This way I save Rs 1,200 on diesel on each trip," he reveals.

The use of narrow side-roads is frowned upon by fleet operators, as rough roads wear out truck tyres more quickly - the stipulated life of a truck tyre is 75,000 km. The driver is careful to switch off the GPS before taking the detour, he does not want it recorded. He returns to the highway at Dobbaspete, a small town on Bangalore's outskirts, at around 8.40 in the morning.

At Dobbaspete, we observe a long line of stationary tractor trailers. It is a common sight on the outskirts of most big cities, which ban entry of heavy vehicles during the day to prevent traffic snarls. Bangalore, too, keeps them out between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m, which means all those vehicles we see will stand idle for the next 14 hours or more. It is a major impediment to rapid transportation of goods in the country.

Corruption squad
Shortly after leaving Davanagere in Karnataka, we run into a hurdle. A road transport office squad stops our truck and fines the driver Rs 700. What for? Some traffic violation that only the squad knows. We never find out. "We are stopped up to seven times per trip and each time we have to pay," says the driver.

At 9.45 p.m. we halt at a dhaba near Dharwad in north Karnataka. We have clocked 605 km in a little less than 24 hours. Som takes a short nap - he has been driving continuously for nearly 12 hours. We exchange notes with other drivers at the dhaba - and are proud to learn that, on average, trucks manage only around 350 km a day.

Speed breakers

While the Golden Quadrilateral has cut travel time considerably, some challenges remain:

Check Posts Multiplicity of check posts and mobile squads are a source of corruption and traffic obstruction on highways

Toll booths As many as 18 toll booths dot the 1,300-km NH4. The toll charges work out to almost Rs 2,500 per trip

Fuelling Truckers refuel frequently rather than travel with full-tanks due to fear of fuel thefts on the highways

Entry restrictions Trucks have to wait as long as 17 hours to enter cities due to curbs on day-time entry

One reason why trucks are unable to pick up much speed, despite the smooth, open road, is overloading. Constant battering by the wheels of overloaded trucks damages the road as well. On Sunday morning, as we hit the Western Ghats, our truck struggles to climb.

The way bill says we are carrying a seven-tonne load. Is the load actually higher? The driver claims his operator always informs him if the truck is overloaded, but this time he has not been told anything.

Loading a truck beyond its permitted capacity is an offence rampantly indulged in, we found. All stand to gain - fleet operators, truck drivers, customers. The operator gets more revenue per trip, and the customer is spared from engaging another truck to carry just a few extra tonnes. The driver says his operator pays him Rs 800 for every tonne of extra load. Certainly, if caught, there are fines to pay, which vary widely from state to state: Maharashtra charges Rs 5,000 for every extra tonne, neighbouring Gujarat a mere Rs 300.

Sugarcane fields welcome us as we enter Maharashtra on Sunday morning at around 11. We have covered 1,040 km in 36 hours. Som, who has been driving trucks since he was 18, says the Golden Quadrilateral has cut travel time on the Chennai-Mumbai route by half. The international average for road travel is 1,000 km a day. Though the Indian average is much lower, our truck has managed to log 600 km.

Earlier, trucks found it difficult to cover more than 300 km in a day. Improved efficiency in transportation has meant significant savings in inventory costs for industry. The 5,846-km, Rs 60,000-crore Golden Quadrilateral project, conceived by the National Democratic Alliance government in 2000, is almost complete, with work remaining on just 40-odd km. The Chennai-Mumbai segment is complete.

Around 80 per cent of the project was finished before the NDA was voted out of power in 2004. But the momentum slowed thereafter. At 3.25 in the afternoon our truck crosses the Katraj Tunnel and enters Pune. At 7 p.m. we reach Mumbai - 18 toll booths, 20 bottles of mineral water, 44 hours and 1,335 km later.

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