While the revised guidelines issued by the Union Home Ministry last week stipulates an easing of operation by trucks following the phased lifting of lockdown from tomorrow, the truck drivers are skeptical about how it will benefit them. Uncertainty about their meals, highway garages shut down, no food outlets, including dhabas, on the highway and regular police verification, were some of the hardships faced by the truck drivers during the first phase of the lockdown period. And they don’t expect much to change from 20 April, when the phased lifting of the lockdown starts.
In its revised guidelines the Union Home Ministry has allowed movement of truck and goods carrier with two drivers and one helper, provided they have a valid driving license. Empty trucks will be allowed to ply on roads and highways to pick up and drop goods. According to the home ministry circular, shops for truck repair and dhabas on the highways will be allowed while maintaining social distancing norms prescribed by respective states and union territories. The move is expected to provide relief for truck drivers.
The first phase of the lockdown across India not only affected the migrants or people with low income but the truck drivers as well. A conversation with the truckers, who are currently stranded in different parts of the country, revealed that they faced immense difficulties when they were on the road and are clueless about their next move. “The other people (migrants) are lucky, they are under some roof and have food. We are on the road, uncertain about our meals and also, we have to take care of our trucks. We are the most affected ones,” said Ajeet, who is still stuck in some a village near Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.
Rajender, a truck driver from Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, was on the road when the lockdown was declared. He had just unloaded his goods and was all set to return Delhi. However, little did he know that the entire next month would be challenging for him. “I got a call from my owner about the lockdown. I was literally stunned. Though I had some money, I was kind of stranded in the middle of the road. My owner informs me I can’t drive anymore,” informed Rajender over the phone. He parked his truck at the nearest petrol station and waited for the next instructions from his owner. His troubles were no less here as police bothered him every now and then. With the help of fellow stranded truck drivers, they started cooking their meals and anyhow spent a week at the petrol pump in Tinsukia, Assam. Then one day, he was asked to leave immediately by police.
“Those days, drivers from Delhi or Mumbai were looked at very suspiciously. They were considered carriers of Coronavirus. Thankfully, I got a call and truck was again filled with ginger that I had to drop somewhere in Bihar,” informed Rajender. But after dropping his consignment at Bihar, Rajender had to spend another 12 days in a village in Bihar as none of the roadside dhabas was opened. “Nobody was ready to help me, for fear of contracting the virus. Finally, one gentleman helped me by providing me meals and lodge for the next two weeks,” he informed. He then managed to reach Gorakhpur, where he knew a few people running highway eateries. They helped him with food and other requirements. “We drivers and farmers are the backbones of the economy. Farmers cultivate and we drop the goods everywhere. Therefore, I wish the government had thought about us before imposing the lockdown,” complained Rajender, who is still stuck in Gorakhpur. Asked about what if his truck breaks down, he said, “Bhagwan Bharose. (God help me!)”
As per reports by the various truck organisations, out of 75 lakh commercial vehicles in the country, over 20 per cent are stuck on the roads across the country. Now, only 10 per cent that deal with the food items or medicines are on the road. But even those drivers complained the conditions were tough for them also. In fact, the plight is no less troublesome for those carrying essential items during the lockdown period.
Shankar, a truck driver from Champaran, Bihar, was in Cooch Behar, West Bengal when the lockdown was announced. He, along with two more employees (a co-driver and helper) loaded chilly in his truck that was to be dropped in Azamgarh, UP. Even though it was an essential item, Shankar informed that he was constantly harassed by police on the way through West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. There was a heavy presence of police on the highway and barricades everywhere. Sharing his ordeal, Shankar complained that policemen were very rude to them these days and want to extract some money through any means. “Once the lockdown was imposed, only 10 per cent of trucks are on the road. It means their (policemen’s) income also went down. Now they have limited trucks and limited incomes. They want to make up by unnecessary charging from us. We don’t have any option but to give him money as these are perishable items,” he added. Shankar also had to struggle to procure food. As all the roadside dhabas were shut he did not have any option but to stay hungry. “I had skip food for one day as none of the dhabas was opened. Even my regular eateries, where I usually stop for a break, refused to answer our call for help. Thankfully, my village falls en route and I asked my wife to cook a meal as much as she can for three people,” said Shankar.
While imposing the second lockdown, the home ministry in its guidelines permitted empty trucks to ply on the road. However, trucks with other items were still barred. Therefore, it was kind of a nightmare for those drivers, who were transporting goods like hardware. Ajeet, a driver from Delhi, was near Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, when came to know about the lockdown. His truck was carrying some scrap and junk material. “I got a call from the owner, who asked me to park the truck at some safe place and wait until the lockdown got over. Since then I have been staying in the truck outside a village. I can’t leave the truck aloof as it has expensive items,” informed Ajeet from where he is stranded.
With hardly any eateries opened, Ajeet cooks his own meal as always carries a small gas cylinder and some ration in his truck. “My ration is over. Now I have to buy stuff from the village shops. Those shops also have limited options. Therefore, we eat whatever we get,” said Ajeet.
It is not the drivers but also their owners, family members and labourers associated with the industry who are equally facing the pain. Vineet Kumar, who has 15 trucks, mostly deals with fruits in Azadpur Mandi. He shared that his trucks were stranded in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi when the lockdown was announced. “For the first few days, we were clueless about what to do. And my trucks remained stranded at different places. Those who managed to reach their destination didn’t find labour to unload the items. One of my trucks took four days to unload, which is usually a four-hour affair otherwise, he ended.