The travails of truckers in India
India’s job scarcity and talent shortage have been much reported on. But there’s another shortfall in the job market that people hardly talk about. We’re referring to the severe shortage of truckers within the country’s complicated and unorganised logistics supply chain, a deficiency that has compounded over the last few decades.
From 1,300 drivers per 1,000 trucks in the 1980s, the figure spiralled to one driver per truck in the early nineties, and has kept reducing even further in the current times. While the government is targeting 2% contribution of the transport sector to the gross domestic product (GDP), in the absence of adequate welfare measures and protection for truckers, the situation on-ground seems unlikely to change soon.
What drove this crisis though, especially when this age was preceded by a time when truckers signed up in large numbers? Let’s find out.
A new income opportunity
In the decades past, as the country’s road networks grew and the requirement for freight transport increased, demands for truckers increased year-on-year. Trucking offered mobility and a chance to visit far-flung places before the internet made its presence and offered us virtual glimpses into the world. It was an alternative source of income for those who were not keen to join traditional/family occupations practised, especially in the semi-urban and rural areas. With truckers spending more time on roads, they personalised their house-on-wheels with vibrant designs, reflecting their unique identity. However, even then, there were challenges aplenty.
Life as a trucker
A trucker’s life has never been easy, and there are too many reasons why:
Working hours stretch long, sometimes even around-the-clock. Be it extreme heat, cold or rain, deliveries need to be completed in record time. While some distance journeys may be undertaken by two truckers driving in turn, most others are not so fortunate and are forced to be at the wheel throughout a long trip. The truck doubles up as a living space for days on end. To stave off exhaustion and sleep, truckers often take to tobacco and other substances.
Poor infrastructure facilities abound for truckers across the country. They do not have access to rest facilities and toilets. Food is mostly purchased at small roadside eateries or cooked by them on the go (some of them carry kerosene stoves for this purpose). The on-the-move lifestyle affects the health of truckers adversely, and rising pollution levels in recent years have only added to the list of health woes.
Truckers risks their lives often. Their trucks may be overloaded (as contractors may want to deliver more freight faster) risking not just their life but those of others too on the road. Sometimes truckers also risk driving with mechanical faults in the vehicle to complete deliveries in time. They drive through difficult terrain and even run the risk of having their goods robbed. The risk of accidents is high, especially given the lack of rest on the trip. It is estimated that trucks and tempos accounted for 21% road accidents in 2016.
Tales of exploitation are common. Many truckers are illiterate or semi-literate and at the mercy of contractors and transporters. They face financial difficulties, yet are unable to access the correct forums to seek justice. There is no social security in place for these workers.
Family time is rare. Given their nature of work, truckers are hardly home, and not able to enjoy much time with their family. Many are not keen to join the profession for this very reason. Their erratic lifestyle also exposes them to the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS from chance sexual encounters.
A trucker’s life is not one of dignity. While all the challenges mentioned earlier have existed from the start, this is a primary reason why the number of truckers has reduced in recent years. Trucking is not counted as skilled labour in India; there is a social stigma attached with the profession. Often, truckers themselves don’t encourage their sons to join the profession.
They are routinely harassed by road traffic officials and the police. Even the public is unrelenting in its anger and irritation when it comes to trucks on the road. They are viewed as obstructive entities and negative perceptions about them abound, such as this is a profession for the semi-literate or illiterate, those who don’t have too many options to explore.
Truckers’ invisibilisation and existence on the periphery of society has only hastened the reduction in the number of job applicants in this sector. With the emergence of alternative career opportunities, no one wants to be a trucker anymore if they can avoid it. The growth of online taxi services in recent years, especially, has resulted in many former truckers moving to day-driving jobs which even offer much higher pay and respect.
Undervalued, yet critical, contributions
However, the contribution of truckers to the country’s economy cannot be underestimated. Whether it is a highway that needs to be completed, or a factory whose goods have to be transported to the shop-floor, a shortage in truckers results in project delays and cancellations and massive budgetary losses. If you think of the rise in prices of necessary items in recent years, consider whether those items are the ones ferried by trucks, and you’ll be able to account for increased expenses. Moreover, since India’s waterways and airways have not been utilised to carry freight to the same extent as via roads, the condition of trucks lying idle needs to be addressed soon if we are to retain the country’s growth prospects.
A step towards change
Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) has been working with truckers at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Navi Mumbai, India’s largest container port, for several years now. Our interventions seek to sensitise truckers on good health practices via physical and mental well-being sessions and de-addiction programmes, improve their financial literacy, skills and access to government schemes, and enhance their awareness of road safety principles.
Mohammad Rizwan, a 28-year-old trucker who has been working for eleven years, used to consume atleast 3–4 packets of tobacco daily to force himself to stay alert while driving. He was so addicted to tobacco that he felt he could not live without it. However, after he attended some health and counselling sessions, he realised the health risks he was exposing himself to. ‘It has been over a year since I am off tobacco, and I feel much healthier now. I try to encourage fellow drivers also not to use such substances’, he says.
YUVA aims to utilise innovative mediums of communication (awareness camps, interactive sessions, street plays, and so on) to reach out to truckers effectively. While truckers are gradually getting access to health and insurance schemes, and are organising themselves into collectives to engage on their rights, much more needs to be done for their social security and to enhance their life and livelihoods, if we want them to continue working in and contributing to this sector.