The demand for CV drivers to be given the status of frontline warriors should be scrutinised and acted upon.

Story by Bhushan Mhapralkar

Rajesh Shelke (name changed on request) spoke in a worried tone about contracting the Covid-19 virus as he waited for his truck to loaded at a warehouse at Bhandup, an industrial suburb of Mumbai. He said that he is worried because he has seen seen two fellow owner-operators go down with the virus. Not only them, but an autorickshaw driver in the area where he stays at Ghatkopar also went down with the virus. The number of CV drivers affected with Covid-19 would have added to the statistics as the virus causes much pain to all those who come its paths. What is perhaps the most painful is the financial and emotional burden it unleashes, ravaging families and robbing them of a bright future. Stating that the virus has literally brought driver families on the brink of collapse with the loss of their only earning member as well as the money lost in ensuring medical aid, Shelke averred that it is high time the government provides CV drivers appropriate protection.

Baffled when asked if the driver community should be given the status of frontline warriors, he had to be explained what it meant and who were the professionals who were covered under it. It took some time before it dawned on him that drivers of commercial vehicles like trucks and tempos should be extended a similar protection and status. Clearly not as educated or as aware of their rights, CV drivers have nevertheless worked through the lockdown and are reporting in higher numbers since July 01, 2020, when the ‘unlockdown’ was announced by the Central Government. If the utilistion levels of CVs were down to eight- to 10 per cent during the lockdown with only essential goods like food materials, vegetables and medicines being transported, they have been growing since the announcement of the ‘unlockdown’ phase. The increase in agricultural, industrial and service sector activities has been pushing CV utilisation up. It is in-turn leading to more CVs and their drivers turning out on the road. With every CV driver reporting to work, the risk of them contracting Covid-19 because of nature of their work is also growing. It is growing in-line with the spiking numbers of Covid-19 positive people in the country.

Sandeep Kumar, 24 truck driver outisde his truck.

 

With India a close third behind Brazil and USA, it is quite logical for CV drivers to worry about adding to the Covid-19 statistics. With almost 95 to 98 per cent of them financially weak (having barely survived the two months of lockdown without work), CV drivers, according to the road freight (transport) fraternity, should be given the status of frontline warriors. Mentioned a single tempo owner-operator at Nashik, that the slowdown in 2019 took away its share of business and the two of lockdown wiped away all the money set aside. To stay away from work for even a single day is impossible, he said. Me and my family would go hungry, he added. Worried about who would take care of his family, his children and the medical expenses if he were to contract the deadly virus, the owner-operator expressed that he is very worried about what the future has in store. Averred a small fleet owner (operating five trucks) from Nagpur over phone that the loss of business because of the lockdown has been significant. On the top of it, there is a worry of how the virus is going to affect them and their drivers, he said. Informing that one of his trucks that he bought in 2019 has come with a driver protection scheme from the manufacturer, the fleet owner mentioned that the drivers of his other four trucks have no such cover to avail.

 

At a greater risk

The honking campaign by CV drivers from July 01 to July 07, 2020, to draw the attention of the government to their pain points seemed have not met with much success, there is little doubt that the nature of their work involving numerous touchpoints puts them at the inherent danger of contracting the virus. Mentioned a Tata Ace driver in Mumbai working for Grab (a Singapore-based technology company offering ride-hailing transport services, food delivery and payment solutions), that he is worried of contracting Covid-19 as he does the city circuit so many times during the day, transporting grocery for JioMart. His story sounds familiar. He too cannot stay without work for a single day having exhausted his savings during the two months of the lockdown. His family will go hungry, he rued. Highlighting the financial vulnerability of CV drivers, it does not take long to understand why the road freight (transport) fraternity is demanding that they be given the cover akin to frontline warriors. Of the opinion that a CV driver, as an important part of the supply chain, should be insured by the government like it has a doctor and a policeman, Jehan Kotwal of JFK Transport (Pune), expressed that his nature of work puts him at a higher risk. “Doing multiple touchpoints, a CV driver would be left hungry if he does not work and risk his life in the process,” he remarked. Informing that they have been educating CV drivers, making certain that they take the necessary precautions, Kotwal reiterated that the government should give CV drivers an insurance cover because they cannot afford doing the same.

 

 

The nitty-gritty

Drawing attention to the news of GHMC mayor’s driver testing positive, and the news of city bus drivers (BEST and BMTC) testing positive, an industry observer expressed that CV drivers are at a significantly risk no doubt. He mentioned that it is high time that the government looks at their pain points and provides them a suitable cover at least until the pandemic lasts. He also drew attention to drivers of municipal vehicles like refuse trucks, ambulances, fire engines, etc., and stated that they are at a significantly higher risk of contracting the virus because of the nature of their work. Stating that they are however covered as semi-government or government employees, he stressed that it is the private CV drivers who have no cover to lean on. Expressed a big fleet owner that ways should be devised to identify who the driver is and the kind of cover he should be given. Stating that the government has the means as well as the ability to do so rather than operators like them, he pointed at ‘Aadhar’ and the digitisation of driving license records and vehicle registration records. Drawing attention of the process of linking driving licenses to ‘Aadhar’ that is going on for a few years now, the fleet owner said that losing a truck or bus driver at this point in time is risking a supply chain disruption. There is already an acute shortage of drivers, he added.

Touching on the news of a fire engine driver testing positive after he went to get himself checked at a hospital for some other ailment, an industry analyst commented that CV drivers should be given the status of frontline warriors if they are found to be at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19. Drawing attention to the shutdown of the Kumbakonam wholesale-cum-retail vegetable market at Darasuram in Kerala (in May 2020) after a CV transporting potatoes from Mettupalayam tested positive, he stressed on regularly educating the drivers, on regularly conducting their health check ups and to get them to follow the laid down health guidelines. Echoing the sentiments of the industry analyst, Kotwal mentioned that the government should give at least a Rs.20 lakh insurance cover to drivers until the pandemic lasts. “The organised sector of the transport industry is barely five-per cent and would therefore be unable to afford insurance cover for their drivers,” he explained. Stating that a campaign to educate CV drivers across the country should be undertaken in the same vein and manner in which the HIV campaign was conducted, the industry observer stressed on treating them as human beings. They are human beings after all, he remarked.

 

CV drivers as human beings

Expressing that he is worried despite following the guidelines and using masks and gloves, Rajendra Chavan, who regularly ferries vegetables from Karad to the APMC market in Navi Mumbai, stressed upon being treated as human beings. The lockdown and the ‘unlockdown’ did not do anything to change the attitude of the authorities towards drivers he said. Informing that his truck is sanitised during every trip to the market, he drew attention to the large number of people that he comes in contact with everyday. The news of entire section of the market being closed after labourers or traders tested positive isn’t encouraging either, he added. Shutdown from May 11 to May 17, 2020, as the rate of infection among the participants rose at an alarming pace despite imposing strict curbs and guidelines. The APMC market at Navi Mumbai is one among the chain of numerous ‘mandis’ and ‘bazaars’ that operate in India. The number of CV drivers visiting these markets could run in thousands and lakhs per year.

Drawing attention to instances of truck drivers testing positive at Delhi, Mumbai, Bhopal, Panchkula and Goa among other places across the country, the industry observer remarked that giving CV drivers a cover and the status of frontline warriors will strengthen the country’s fight against Covid-19. It will empower them to serve the nation without fear; without worrying that what will happen if they contract the virus. They are more likely to falter under worry than being secure and confident of being supported, he added. Now is the good time to start treating them as human beings, he announced. On the subject of who will foot the bill if CV drivers were to be given the cover extended to Covid-19 frontline warriors, Tata Motors (CVBU) spokesperson highlighted the ‘Samarth’ scheme floated by his company. The scheme, he mentioned, is being offered to all drivers and owner-drivers of CVs it has sold since April 2019. Drivers enrolled are protected with accidental death or disability cover of up to Rs.10 lakh per year per vehicle, he informed. In the current Covid-19 environment, the scheme has also come to cover the cost for Covid-19 test. If found positive, a CV driver is provided medical expense support of up to Rs. 50,000. Commented Kotwal, that driver insurance schemes floated by CV manufacturers often accompany a new vehicle and leave out the existing drivers. It is therefore crucial that the government should provide an insurance cover at least until the pandemic lasts, he added. Insisting that every driver with a commercial vehicle licence should be covered, Kotwal said that if these hardy souls fall prey to the virus the repercussions will negatively affect the supply chain.

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