Story:
Mahendra Arya,
President – All India Transporters Welfare Association (AITWA)

A soldier fighting on the borders of our country is our hero. He has opted a life which is full of risks, and calls for him to be away from his family. He has to practice hard discipline, stay fit and always live with the prospect of laying down his life for his country. A big incentive for him would be the prospect of laying down his life for his beloved country. To perform his duty, he gets a handsome salary. He gets perks and a good life during peace times. He gets pension on retirement or death. He gets recognition as a high and mighty soldier who dedicated his life and times for his country. He gets recognition for laying down his life. He is undoubtedly the hero. After the soldier, it is the turn of the humble farmer.
The farmer burns out his body in scorching summer, chilling winter and heavy rains to grow the crop that will feed the country. He braves fatal risks much like a soldier does. Like being bitten by a poisonous snake, or by being harmed by lightening as he works in his farm anticipating good rains. He is the one who feeds the nation by braving numerous odds and risks. He feeds the 125 crore population of the country. The former prime minister of the country, Lal Bahadur Shastri, recognised the contribution of the farmer with the slogan, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’. He equated the farmer with a soldier in stature. In view of the hardships faced by a farmer, the government has been striving to provide him with better working conditions by rolling out schemes that guarantee a minimum purchase price for his crops. It has been striving to provide the farmer with insurance benefits against crop failure, with easy loans and a waiver package as and when the need is felt.

Not a hero
Like a soldier, the farmer is truly a hero. Like a soldier and a farmer, a truck driver also toils for his country by moving goods. No sector will function if the truck driver does not ferry the necessary goods or raw materials. No sector will function if the truck driver does not ferry the finished goods to the marketplace. Mining of minerals and ores will lose a purpose if the same cannot be ferried by a truck driver from the mine to the factory. No agricultural produce will be good if the truck driver does not ferry it in time to the market. No forces will be able to move swiftly in the absence of drivers for their trucks. Their logistics may simply go haywire. It would be the same case with the citizens of the country with no trucks running to ferry grains, milk, food, newspapers, medicines and everything else.
For the important tasks that truck drivers in the country perform, they are hardly accorded the status of a hero. Much less like a soldier or a farmer. Like a soldier or a farmer would, a truck driver also comes from a poor background. They also lack education. They turn to truck driving because they do not find any other job. Most start life as a helper (or a spotter). Their training to drive a truck is often informal. It is about learning to drive by performing all the tasks entrusted by their boss – an established driver. Since more than 80 per cent of the trucks in India belong to small truck owners who own between one and five vehicles, the chance of securing a job is higher. To get a job with a large fleet operator is not so easy. Many transport companies do not have their own fleet. Their business model works around hiring trucks from the market. This leads to a situation where truck drivers are deprived of regular employment protection. They are left out of the scope of ESI, PF, Bonus, Leave and Gratuity.

Home away
A typical work life of a driver has him away from his family for a long time. Much depends on the routes he has been assigned, and the delay in getting return loads. Apart from piloting the truck, a truck driver also has the added responsibility of being the custodians of the materials his truck is carrying. This requires that he is always alert. With so much to care for, truck drivers are deprived of a break for a proper sleep since there are hardly any secured facilities along the highway where the security of the truck and the goods it is carrying is guaranteed. Good facilities are hard to come by. The lack of them has the truck drivers sleeping inside their trucks; eating food at road side joints or cooking it themselves by carrying with them a stove and few utensils. Dearth of facilities on the highway to respond to the nature of call is yet another challenge the truck drivers have to deal with. They often have to suppress any thought of attending to the call of nature for the lack of facilities or for the danger of loss or theft. Doing this has a detrimental effect on their health.
Issues like these often get way laid in the wake of the talk of a risky sex life truck drivers lead. Logistics experts often highlight their sex life by addressing them as the ones who visit prostitutes. However, ugly as it may sound, it is often the health issues faced by the drivers and the reasons which cause it that hardly get the importance they need. If the lack of proper sleep, rest, food, and toilet, could have an effect on the health of the truck drivers, even bad is the prospect of losing life or a limb in an accident. It is something that is always at the back of their mind. Despite braving such odds, truck drivers are often neglected. The average payment a truck driver would get from the best fleet operator is about Rs.20,000. It amounts to Rs.667 a day. The day’s work for a truck driver amounts to 24 hours and not an eight-hour or a 10-hour shift.

Truck drivers don’t count
Few companies provide truck drivers with perks over and above their salaries. Truck drivers that work with smaller operators, which amounts to 80 per cent of them, get paid much less than a large fleet operator would. The low wages often force truck drivers to make an extra buck out of diesel consumption. Neither the state government or the central government offers any facilities to a truck driver. No one thinks about their family. Drivers get covered for accidental death in the third party insurance policy for a small amount. It is generally two to three lakhs. That is the only insurance they have. Rather than pay attention to the root cause of what makes a truck driver to earn an extra buck out of diesel consumption, most operators look at the driver as the one who is out to steal diesel. They presume so and treat him with contempt.
On the road, a truck driver is stopped by a policeman by waving his hand. Any policeman can stop him. In normal circumstances he will collect some money from the truck driver for no fault of his by exercising his power over the hapless truck driver. When the truck driver crosses a state border, there is a regular practice of collecting a hefty amount properly termed as ‘Entry’ from him by the RTO or his goons. In the case of non-payment he is slapped with various charges which are never practiced in India. If he raises his voice to protest, he is roughed up by the officers and their goons. Many videos of such atrocities are available on the internet. Tax Officers, financing companies and anyone with some power may stop the trucks and manhandle the driver. The expression of authority is often exercised by by slapping a truck driver even though he has no role in tax of goods or loan payment of the truck he is piloting. He may get detained on highway for several days without being provided any shelter or food.
A truck driver is also an easy prey for criminals who operate on highways. He is often alone or has a spotter with him. With goods worth several crores on board, he is vulnerable to be attacked by a jeep full of highway criminals. In the given circumstances, he has the option to either surrender to their demands or face death as they come equipped with arms and ammunition. There are thousand of records available of such murders on the highway. In case of an accident, which could be due to his negligence or by someone else driving on the highway, he may lose his life. If death does not come to him instantaneously, there are chances that he may bleed to death given the way the people in this country refrain from any involvement.

Lesser mortals
Even when a truck driver is carried to a hospital, the hospital would not start any procedure on various grounds like police complaint, etc. ‘Who will make the payment’ is generally the hidden reason behind all other reasons. If the driver survives in an accident or an attempt of theft, he is expected to report to the nearest police station. He gets an extremely unfriendly reception there. In case of thefts, the jurisdiction is the easiest reason to reject the recording of a First Information Report (FIR). Many a times, the driver is accused to be an accomplice. He is made to run from pillar to post; from one police station to the other until he is attended to by his employer or the transport company. The truck driver, it is necessary to realise is the ‘Highway Hero’ just like a soldier is on the nation’s borders and a farmer in the country’s farmlands. If ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ is true in spirit then ‘Jai Saarthi, Jai Bharti’ should also be the slogan for the economical growth of the country.
Unfortunately, even the common citizen of the country treats the truck driver with contempt. If not contempt, he or she treats him with no respect. Political leaders don’t find drivers of importance. It is because they are not their vote bank. A driver rarely gets to vote as he is mobile. His life and his work does not allow him to plan his stay for voting at his constituency. For this simple reason, the one-crore plus community of truck drivers does not feature in any political party’s manifesto. The question that arises is, if the truck driver should continue to live such a life? A life that offers hardly any incentive, perks or respect? The life a truck driver leads is quite unlike those of the drivers of cabs linked to Ola, Uber and Meru. They get paid handsomely and with perks and holidays. The cabs are air-conditioned and often engaged by respectable passengers. Against such a background, it is hard to think of the next generation entering the profession of truck driving. With no truck drivers available the movement of goods will pose a big challenge. Three questions arise in this context: Whether
the nation should ignore the truck driver as their highway hero? Should the trade sleep on the challenge of growing shortage of truck drivers? Should the government and its machinery ignore the existence of truck drivers?

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At All India Transporters’ Welfare association ( AITWA), we have taken up the challenge of bringing about a major shift in the life of a truck driver. We want to bring about a change in how truck drivers are perceived through a mass awareness campaign. We will present a set of demand for the welfare of truck drivers to the government. We are going to invite all the companies that are associated with the production of trucks and its accessories to participate in the movement. All associations are welcome to join the project while a detailed step-by-step activity report is being prepared. The project ‘Highway Heroes’ will be launched in a formal function by AITWA.

In arrangement with Transtopics magazine. The views expressed by the author are his personal opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CV magazine

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