Stranded Trucks Across India Another Body Blow To A Battered Industry

Transporters’ lobby estimates 80 percent of truckers are out of job after the lockdown.

A man walks past container trucks sitting parked near the Jawaharlal Nehru Port, operated by Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A man walks past container trucks sitting parked near the Jawaharlal Nehru Port, operated by Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Kulwant Singh Khera, 52, is stuck at Jawaharlal Nehru Port, Mumbai with his truck as the nation has gone into a lockdown to check the spread of Covid-19. The trucker from Punjab has no essential items to ferry and nowhere to go.

“I can’t move from here because I will be stopped at the next check point. There is neither enough ration for me to survive here for a few days, nor can I leave the truck and go,” Khera said over the phone on Thursday night. “We are struggling for water, food. No shops are open.”

Khera is among truckers and transporters who move cargo across the country in 90 lakh trucks. A mode of transport that, according to the Economic Survey 2018-19, accounts for 69 percent of country-wide freight traffic. And the lockdown comes when the economic slowdown and new axle norms allowing trucks to ferry higher weight have already battered the industry. According to estimates by the All India Transporters Welfare Association, nearly 80 percent of the truckers are out of job after the shutdown.

The three-week India shutdown, the most far-reaching measure by any government worldwide to curb the new coronavirus pandemic, has stalled all businesses barring essential items. Trucks carrying anything other than staples and medicines can’t be on the road.

That has made life hard for truckers who are stranded in different parts of the country. As roadside eateries are shut, lack of food and water has caused panic. With reports of the police beating up people for venturing out, drivers are scared to go out to buy supplies.

“Situation is very bad,” Ashok Goyal, vice president of the All India Transporters Welfare Association, said over the phone from Mumbai. “While majority of the drivers cannot ply, there are certain pockets where the local police are not allowing trucks with essentials or raw materials for essential items cross the border.”

Many stranded drivers have returned home or have just simply abandoned trucks, truckers’ association and industry players told BloombergQuint. The AITWA estimates that as many as 2 lakh drivers have left the trucks as they were stopped at the borders or had no load to carry.

To be sure state governments, including Delhi and Maharashtra, have assured that truckers won’t be harassed while supplying essential items.

Abhishek Gupta, owner of Prakash Parcel Service, a logistics company, however, said the government should allow trucks to carry non-essential items one way and carry essential item in return or vice versa. “Right now, even empty trucks are not able to reach the location to pick up essential items.”

Blackbuck, a trucking aggregator that has about 1 million registered members, said the firm is seeing improvement in movement of essential goods. Still, Rajesh Yabaji, co-founder of the startup, said the government should intervene and ensure truckers don’t go bankrupt.

“The industry is already going through a difficult phase. The government should focus on ensuring how truckers can survive. There are drivers who are stranded and don’t have access to food and basic amenities.”

Even if the government eases the movement of trucks, there’s another hurdle: availability of labour. “While the vehicular movement has started in many parts of the country, the worry is when a vehicle reaches destination, there is a shortage of labour to unload the inventory,” Gupta said. “In certain areas, even warehouse and factories are closed.”