Business Today

The Case of the Vanishing Drivers

A steady decline in people willing to take to monster steering wheels is shaping up as another unexpected crisis for the embattled Indian economy.
By Sumant Banerji | Print Edition: May 22, 2016

The national highway heading southward from Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh towards Kanpur, once the Manchester of the East in India's most populous state, is dotted by numerous brick kilns. Their numbers so substantial, it gives a yellowish tinge to the air thanks to the hot soot bellowing from the tall chimneys. Rapid urbanisation has resulted in an uptick in construction activity in the area and the demand for bricks is persistent. Mainpuri along with neighbouring Etawah, a region that is the stronghold of the ruling Samajwadi Party, supplies the bulk of bricks in the state. Yet, there is concern on the face of 53-year-old Dhanraj Singh, who manages three kilns in the area.

"I am unable to operate the kilns to full capacity, though there is no dearth of buyers," he says. "There is a problem of logistics. I have to send five dumpers to Kannauj, but there are no drivers. If the supply does not reach on time, I lose money. And if I don't clear the stock, I have to go slow on production. Shutting down one furnace and restarting it later is expensive."

Singh is a victim of a problem that is slowly turning into a crisis, affecting a large number of small businessmen and traders around the country. Even as the Indian economy is being talked of in the same breath as other, more mature economies, the country's logistics supply chain that transports its economic produce, remains utterly unorganised and convoluted. Unlike the US and Europe where hauling a freight carrier over long distances is seen as skilled employment, India's large population, high poverty and insipid law enforcement mean driving a truck is for those who do not find employment elsewhere. Many of them are also uneducated. It's rearing its head now, but in a young, aspiring society, finding a continual ready supply for such a vocation was always going to be a problem.

Every Fourth Truck Is Lying Idle

Taking a sip of the sugary broth that goes for tea in this small dhaba at Delhi's Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar, 65-year-old Bhushan Thakur recounts his glory days when he had eight trucks.

"That was back in 1998. I used to take elaborate interviews for prospective drivers," he says. "I had the luxury I would not settle for anybody less than high school (Class X) pass-out. The salary (grimaces) was a pittance. Maybe I became greedy then. We all did. But the going rate was low."

With old age sapping all his energy, Thakur decided to exit the business in 2005. The end, however, came in much earlier than he had thought.

"I cannot say when exactly, but slowly the number of fresh drivers became a trickle. Then rural guarantee scheme (NREGA) happened and suddenly there was nobody. Drivers' salaries went up and I was always operating on a tight budget. I could not cope up."

In one go, Thakur sold four of his trucks. Another two were so old that he had to abandon them. They are rotting in Jamshedpur and Patiala. Today, he is left with just two in working condition.

"Even these won't last much longer. They hardly go out. I come here almost every day looking for somebody who can make at least a local trip," he says.

Last November, Road Transport, Highways and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari said shortage of drivers was harming the economy.

"There is a 22 per cent shortage of drivers in the country today," he had said. "We are amending the Motor Vehicle Act to introduce computerised driving schools and training centres to impart skills for driving specialised vehicles used in the infrastructure sector, especially in building roads and national highways."

The shortage is going up every passing month. Industry estimates suggest that the gap in demand and supply of truck drivers is now steeper. In 1982, there was an oversupply with over 1,300 drivers per 1,000 trucks. The number gradually slid to a driver per truck in 1991/92, the year the Indian economy was liberalised. Thereafter, demand has always outstripped supply. Thakur's two trucks are part of nearly 2.3 million vehicles - 27 per cent of total truck population in India - that are lying idle every day for want of someone to drive them. At the going rate, the shortage will be an unprecedented 50 per cent by 2022.

"Can you imagine what it means to the economy? If an expressway is under construction and cement does not reach on time or iron ore does not reach a steel factory as planned, how will you quantify the loss?" says Ramesh Agarwal, Managing Worker, Agarwal Movers Group. "If trucks don't move, the economy won't even crawl."

India Overly Reliant on Road Transport

The high demand for truck drivers in the country is also largely due to the lopsided manner in which freight moves here. The near-absence of waterways or air cargo means railways and roads haul majority of the goods in India. Even then, there is a particular bias towards roads in the recent past. At the time of Independence, nearly 90 per cent of the freight in India was transported by railways, which remained the prime source of freight transportation till 1990/91. Thereafter, rapid expansion of the road network and creation of multiple expressways cris-crossing the country saw more and more freight being hauled through roads. The increasing shortage of drivers in the past 25 years is a pointer towards the same trend. In 2015/16, an estimated 65 per cent of the country's freight was transported through 4.7 million km of road.

Yet, that is not good news for the economy. Globally, road freight is considered the most inefficient and expensive mode of freight haulage. It is more time-consuming, prone to damages and at the mercy of external factors. The Indian roadways industry is also particularly poor when judged against global standards. On average, the speed of a truck in India is a mere 30-40 kph that enables it to traverse 250-300 kpl. Globally, the average speed of any truck is much higher at nearly 60-80 kph, which means it covers nearly double the distance in India per day. India spends almost 13 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on transportation, warehousing and logistics. This is much higher than other developing economies such as Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia and developed economies like the US, Germany, France and Japan. The higher spend is on the back of equally high losses due to inefficiencies estimated at a whopping $99 billion, 4.3 per cent of GDP.

Irudayaraj, from Coimbatore, who started driving Uber taxi last year, after driving trucks for 10 years

"I used to earn Rs 20,000-25,000 a month when I was driving a truck. Now I make Rs 15,000-20,000 every week. A lot of people I know have shifted from driving trucks and buses to cabs. More will shift in future"

"Currently, logistics costs in India are very high when compared to Europe or the US. Our focus is to bring down the cost by developing coastal shipping and inland waterways," says Gadkari. "The Make-in-India dream cannot be realised, if logistics costs are not reduced. So, waterways are being given a priority. World over, freight that moves over water is the cheapest. It is five times more expensive to transport the same goods by road. We want to develop over 111 rivers in the country for water-based transport. If we integrate coastal cities with inland towns by rivers, then there would be a huge saving."

A report prepared by the National Transport Development Policy Committee says that increased investment in railways and creation of dedicated freight corridors will see a gradual tilt towards railways in future. The report also says the ratio between roads and railways will diminish to 55:45 in the next 10 years, and balance out in 15 years. However, experts believe the thrust on other modes notwithstanding, the dependence on roads is unlikely to go down anytime soon.

R. Ramakrishnan, Senior VP, Commercial Vehicles, Tata Motors

"We are doing our bit by setting up training academies, making the trucks safer and more advanced"

"It is very unlikely railways will regain its lost glory. Road transport and trucking will continue to flourish and corner the lion's share of freight in the country," says Ramesh Kumar, Founder and Chairman of KRK Foundation, a registered trust that works towards uplifting the living standards of truck drivers in the country. "Simply because last-mile connectivity has to happen and that can be only through the road." Demand for drivers is unlikely to taper off anytime soon.

Drive in comfort

There may not have been an improvement in the living condition of a truck driver in India, but the cabin where he spends the majority of his time on the road has seen significant changes in the past decade. Partly due to changes in emission and safety norms, today's truck is more powerful than before while offering better driveability. Further, it is no longer difficult to find airconditioned cabins, GPS tracking devices and Bluetooth connectivity in the vehicles.

Sample this. While the average engine of a truck in 2001 had a maximum output of about 160 horsepower (hp), it has now gone up to almost 230 hp. In fact, for specialised mining operations, Volvo even offers a 400 hp engine. More power means better load-carrying capacity and higher speed that is aided by better roads and more expressways. The vehicles are also much safer. Last year, the government made it mandatory for all trucks and buses to have anti-lockbraking systems that enhances stability.

Other notable additions include adjustible and power steering, radial tyres and cruise control. In addition, trucks are today being completely built by companies unlike in the past when the chassis was supplied by Tata Motors or Ashok Leyland and the body was customised and built by sundry manufacturers outside. The difference is almost similar to a monocoque and ladder on frame chassis of a car - it is lighter, faster and fuel- efficient. "A clear example of the advancement in technology is the reduction in number of breakdown of trucks on the road today," says Vinod Dasari, Managing Director, Ashok Leyland. The next big change would be the advent of automatic transmission in trucks.

Ramesh Agarwal, Managing Worker, Agarwal Movers Group (Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)

"The joke doing the rounds is, leave aside cars, we will need self-driving trucks in India because very soon we will not find any driver for them"

Along with remote key locking and automatic window winding, it will further reduce the difference in features between a truck and a car. Will this promise of a more comfortable drive lure more people to this profession? Only time will tell.

Low Self-esteem, Better Opportunities

"A doctor's son wants to be a doctor. An engineer's an engineer, a lawyer's a lawyer. But a truck driver will never want his son to become like him. He will not recommend driving a truck to anybody," says 57-year-old Guman Singh, who has been on the road for the better part of his life - 34 years. He looks at least 10 years older and has been suffering from respiratory problems for over two decades now, a fall-out of being in the midst of the dust and grime of the Indian highway for so long.

Seated next to him in this small eatery in Manesar, is Suresh Singh, 35, from Behror that falls midway between Delhi and Jaipur. Both stay on the road ferrying new cars made in Maruti Suzuki's factory nearby across the country for nearly 22 days every month and get to see their family once every two months. Twice, if they are lucky. Their craving for respect for what they do is far more than the money they make.

"Money is not really a problem. There is a shortage of drivers, so that has helped us make more money. But we don't get any respect from the society," the younger Singh says. "From the traffic policeman to fellow road users, everybody feels we can be insulted. Even a cyclist can harass us at times. It's strange that these cars we are transporting, once they are on the road, they are a symbol of status. Well, we carry a dozen of them in one go."

A truck driver's life in India is not an easy one, and it regularly figures in the list of worst jobs in the country. Long hours, inhospitable working conditions, lack of sleep and constant harassment on the road means the life expectancy of a truck driver is at least 10 years less than the national average. Those that live long, like Guman Singh, suffer from multiple health disorders. Driving a truck is risky as well. According to National Crime Records Bureau data, 20 per cent of all fatalities on the road in India in 2014 were of those driving trucks.

"The living conditions of a truck driver is an apt case for the National Human Rights Commission. They live in the fringes of the society, like outcasts," says S.P. Singh, Senior Fellow and Coordinator, Indian Foundation for Transport Research and Training. "I have heard instances where truck drivers have struggled to find brides as nobody wants to give their daughters to them. Lack of any infrastructure for them to rest on the highway also means they become alcoholics and drug addicts."

The rise of taxi start-ups like Ola and Uber as well as low-floor buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) scheme has lured many erstwhile truck drivers to jump ship. The benefits are multifarious - better pay, relaxed working hours and more respect from the society. After driving container trucks for 10 years, Coimbatore-based Irudayaraj shifted to driving cabs three years ago. When Uber launched its operations in his city a year ago, he quickly enrolled himself. Today he claims he is earning more than three times what he was making when he was driving trucks.

"Driving a cab is more fulfilling and satisfying. I used to earn Rs 20,000-25,000 a month, when I was driving a truck. Now I make around Rs 15,000-20,000 every week," he says. "A lot of people I know have shifted from driving trucks and buses to cabs. More will shift in future."

Like Irudayaraj, 34-year-old Heera Lal, from Nalanda in Bihar, is also actively considering ditching his three-year-old Tata Ace for an Ola or Uber cab. One of the many starry- eyed youngsters who come to mega cities every year in search of a better life, Lal used some of the money he had saved in his village and bought the vehicle after friends helped him get a loan from a local bank. He drives the mini-truck 12 hours every day, but is not able to make ends meet.

"I have installments to pay and then there are added costs of living in a big city like Delhi," he says. "I cannot even go back to my village. There are others who don't own a vehicle and are squeezed by the fleet owner, but here I am burdened by the interest payment and other costs. My installment per month is Rs 10,300, and then I spend Rs 300-400 on fuel and at least Rs 100-200 towards bribing the traffic police. It leaves me with nothing at the end of the day. My friends are earning much more driving taxis. I am thinking I should do the same."

Not only drivers but also the next generation of fleet owners fancy many "high profile" industries. While the logistics business continues to be quite rewarding and fleet owners unlike many truck drivers are making more than enough money, this is not a typical white-collar business where even the owner needs to be on the field often.

"A trucker's life is tough and so is somebody who manages the logistics business. This is not for those who want to sit in an office with AC," says Amit Chandwar, Director at KM Trans Logistics Pvt Ltd. "You encounter sweat and grime on a daily basis. That is probably not very attractive to a young entrepreuner."

No Easy Fix

So, what does it take to make trucking a lucrative enough profession for prospective job-seekers? Given the size of the road transportation industry in the country today - it accounts for 3.2 per cent of GDP (2013/14) _ the importance of truck drivers cannot be overstated. The shortage is already pinching with the economic loss estimated at almost Rs 4,20,000 crore due to trucks lying idle every year. It may be a tad belated, but the private sector as well as the government have begun to realise the need to take corrective measures. Companies like Tata Motors and Ashok Leyland have started various driver-training schools, while big fleet owners have not only revised salaries but also started providing social security safety net like provident fund and insurance.

"We are doing our bit by setting up training academies. There would be 15 within a year in collaboration with state governments, making the trucks safer and more advanced, but it has to be a collective effort," says R. Ramakrishnan, Senior Vice President, Commercial Vehicles, Tata Motors. "We have also rolled out a loyalty programme for our consumers, which has an unnamed insurance scheme. If a driver loses a limb while driving a Tata truck, he will get Rs 2 lakh as compensation and in the unfortunate case of a fatality, his family will get Rs 5 lakh."

The company has also started a truck-racing programme, which, in its third year in 2016, introduced a batch of Indian drivers who had been driving regular trucks on the road. The razzmatazz and media hype around the event was an attempt at instilling a sense of self-esteem within the community. Similarly, Agarwal Movers Group (AMG) has set up a 500-bed drivers' rest house in Rajasthan where drivers can get their quota of eight-hour sleep every night. Lack of sleep has been a prime reason for accidents and fatalities among truck drivers with an estimated 24,000 people dying because of drowsiness in 2013.

Yet, all of it seems too little too late, and the stigma of a truck driver in a society may not be washed away in a jiffy. Many of the driver-training centres, for instance, are not located close to the main centres where drivers congregate. Some of them have come up at far-flung areas to appease a local politician.

"What has the industry done for them? This talk of driver-training programme and jazzed-up truck-racing events is just tokenism," says Singh of IFTRT. "Even the government has not woken up. Its driver- training centre, inaugurated by T.R. Baalu (former road transport and highways minister) in Greater Noida, has not even trained a single driver in three years."

The crisis is fast approaching its tipping point where the economy will begin to stutter for lack of goods movers. The problems, however, are fundamental and there is no easy solution. Thrust in development of new roads has improved the turnaround time for each trip, but creating infrastructure for drivers along the highways and removing red tapism in the regulation of the sector is a long- drawn process. Assimilating a truck driver into the broader society will take even longer.

"The joke doing the rounds is, leave aside cars, we will need self-driving trucks in India," says Agarwal of AMG. "Very soon we will not find any driver for them."

If everything else fails, maybe that is the only hope.

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