For the roads, the night is a fairly competent segregator. It tosses the ones with privilege into the cushy, civilisational confines of houses and leaves the ones bereft of it on the roads. The homeless, who have the common privilege of being the first victims of weather extremities, the rank and file policemen with handkerchiefs lacing their collars, the watchmen guarding gated societies, the drones manning toll booths, their uniforms as drab as their hours…. And, of course, drivers. Of cars and buses and those lumbering lorries, yawning and cruising, smoking and straining to beat the tedium. They are nishachar, nocturnal creatures, emerging after dark to move on the roads. Some also harbour hopes of being socially mobile. Many slog in a permanent dreamless night.
Bindeshwar Yadav (30), tearing into the unlit realm on a Haryana highway in his truck, belongs to the latter category. He remits roughly Rs 4,000, or what is left with him after a bare-bones lifestyle, to his wife and two kids who live in a village in Darbhanga, Bihar. With his time, he’s more measured: he only spends a month at home in a year. For the rest of the year, the driver’s cabin of the truck is his home.
Truck drivers are welcome at this Ludhiana dhaba
“Earlier, we’d have to spend 3–4 hours at every state border, sometimes a day. Now we sail across borders without stopping.”
The sticky air makes the greasy cabin ickier than usual. The blend of body odour, engine oil and the incense sticks flanking the miniature idols on the dashboard together make for a sensory cocktail that doesn’t ebb away easily. After hours of staring at it, the red and blue alternately blinking decorative lights almost seem part of the smell. The heat that permeates up from the groaning, belching engine below is like an unpleasant tenant who doesn’t leave. The driver’s three pairs of well-worn clothes, a few utensils and rations are part of the mise-en-scene.
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In his role as a voter in the Indian republic, the trucker is a curious subject. Unlike a homebody, he moves around, he has seen things. Bindeshwar roots, and on rare occasion votes, for Laloo Prasad Yadav back in Bihar and for Narendra Modi at the Centre, unmindful of the stark dichotomy in his choices. He credits Laloo for empowering the Yadavs. “Yeh sab seher jo ghoom rahe hain hum, yeh sab Lalooji ki wajah se hai. Pehle toh forward caste waalon ke liye kaam karte they, kabhi mazdoori mila, kabhi nahin mila (All this city-hopping I’m doing now, it’s because Laloo opened up the opportunities for us. Earlier we had to work for the forward castes in the villages. The wages depended on their whims),” says Bindeshwar. He’s surly: the guy who loaded the goods didn’t do it evenly, and it’s causing the truck to bounce more than usual. “As it is, my spine will give up in another ten years. All these long hours of jerky rides….”
But why does he then support Modi? Pat comes the reply: “Modiji kaam kar rahe hain (He’s doing things).” And then, to advance his argument, he quickly cites GST. For transporters, the tax reform has been a big reliever—in its wake, the state governments abolished the commercial tax checkposts at their borders and even the requirement of a transit pass that specified the route the vehicle would take. “Earlier, we’d have to spend 3–4 hours at every state border, sometimes even an entire day. Now, we just sail across the borders without even stopping once,” says Bindeshwar. That ease vanishes, he hastens to add, when officials from the regional transport office (RTO) are camping at the borders—trucks then have to stop for anything between 20 minutes and an hour for the checking. But that’s nothing to do with GST.
Bindeshwar is carrying goods from Manesar, an industrial hub off Gurgaon in Haryana, to Ludhiana in Punjab. Another consignment-laden truck, going from Manesar to Roorkee in Uttarakhand, whizzes past the Haryana-UP border without so much as a gear shift. Rajinder Pal, the 24-year-old driving the 8-tonne six-wheeler, says the removal of tax barriers and subsequently the coming of the e-way bill, made mandatory across India this June, are a boon for truckers. Those endless hours have become a little less endless. The e-way bill, introduced under GST, is a document required to be carried by a transporter carrying goods worth over Rs 50,000. It’s generated online, along with a unique number. The major portion of the bill, in most cases, is to be filled by the supplier. Transporters are happy.
It’s at the UP-Uttarakhand border, somewhat after the heady stench of those ‘molasses miles’, on the stretch between Muzaffarnagar and Roorkee, that Pal’s truck meets a queue. It’s the first truck queue on its journey from Manesar (after eight hours, and two state borders). An RTO vehicle parked on the roadside explains it. A senior officer sits inside it; truckers approach deferentially by turn as his subordinates check everyone’s papers. After a half-hour wait, Pal is at the head of queue. After thorough scrutiny of his papers, the official lets him pass. “It’s not always so simple. They usually extort anything between Rs 200 and Rs 1,000 to let us through,” he says.
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Travel time and run-INS with tax officials have reduced all around. For truckers, that’s a bit like being upgraded to business class—a tangible improvement in quality of life. They still have grouses, though. The amount of grease money they have to pay has come down only slightly. “The cops and RTO officials harass us even if all our papers are in order. Ab jab rassi ko saanp banne ki aadat hai, toh driver laakh niyam follow karle, paise to dene hi padenge (When the policeman is bent on extorting money, there’s little you can do. Having followed rules means nothing),” rues Sonu Bhati, 27, a driver at one of the logistics firms in Manesar. Behind him, lithe, vest-clad bodies, glistening with sweat, are lifting and pushing goods, unloading and loading them. Other drivers echo Bhati’s point. The drivers get a monthly salary of about Rs 6,000 and a fixed allowance for a trip—roughly, Rs 4,000 for a 500-km journey. They have to meet all expenses, from food to toll taxes to bribes, from that.
Irrespective of state, the ease of transportation that the GST/e-way bill regime has brought about is a universal fact across India. Prakash (40), a lorry driver from Shimoga, Karnataka, recounts old horror stories from interstate checkposts he’s been through. He’s heard of a 36-hour wait in queue—from 4 am until 4 pm the following day—just to get papers stamped. Personally, he’s seen something far more tragic—an ambulance getting stuck in a horrendous jam at Walayar, the checkpost on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border between Coimbatore and Palakkad.
But for the past year, it’s literally been a breeze for him. He’s currently headed to Calcutta from Bangalore with a load of scooters. “We don’t stop at checkposts anymore,” he says. At Attibele on the Tamil Nadu border, 38 km from Bangalore, a large complex built for the state’s commercial tax wallahs a decade ago is mostly deserted. It has no use anymore. The department does deploy mobile squads on the highway, though.
Sales tax office at the Haryana-Punjab border
“If they stop a vehicle for over two hours, I can lodge a complaint. They’ll face the music if our documents are found to be complete.”
Driver Ram Dayal Saini is passing through Bangalore on his way to Jaipur from Chennai with his long trailer. He has a cargo of seven Hyundai sedans. He’s in sync with the rest of his fraternity: Saini reckons he can finish the trip in three days. That’s a saving of one whole day compared to the pre-GST travel time! “We used to see fights at checkposts over who was ahead in the queue,” says Saini, who’s been driving these double-decker car-carriers for nine years. Time saved is also money saved for trucking companies, they add, a touch wistfully.
Prakash, our man from Shimoga, would in earlier days carry a Rs 10,000 advance on his person for the 1,400-odd km trip to Chhattisgarh from Bangalore—of that, he’d save a mere Rs 500. “Now, I’ll take only Rs 5,000 and I save Rs 1,500 of that,” he says, “I know people are complaining about GST’s impact on prices. But you have to see the larger picture. If it helps everybody in the long run, it’s a good thing then.” Saini joins in the collective grouse against the RTO checkposts at the borders. If something similar to GST could be done to eliminate them, he suggests.... Other drivers say rising fuel prices have been a dampener and dented businesses, causing them to sit idle for longer periods now.
RTO officers remain the drivers’ bete noire
The effects of checkpost elimination at borders are evident in almost all parts of the country. The congestion at the Odisha-Bengal border at Jaleshwar was particularly notorious. Those driving through this busy and crucial route would be confronted by seemingly endless queues of trucks, blocking both sides of the highway. The same document check, the same bribes, the same torture by third degree.
“We used to brace for long day-and-night hauls at this intersection and there was no guarantee that we’d be able to get clearance within any particular time. And then came the haggling over bribes. We would need to dish out anywhere between Rs 800 and Rs 2,000 per trip at this border depending on the merchandise,” says Dinesh T, a 24-year-old truck driver from Andhra Pradesh. He has been crossing Jaleshwar for seven years, from his teenage days as a helper, before he graduated to become the main driver.
His elation is evident as he talks about GST: the dead time of waiting at queues requires a stoic bent, it hangs heavy for a young soul such as him. “See, the truth is that in the name of collecting interstate taxes, it was just extortion going on. So many confusing taxes and we didn’t understand the complicated accounting. So we’d be forced to cough up money,” he says. “Now that’s a thing of the past.”
Truckers have little to fear from sales tax squads
Laik Ahmed (34), a truck driver for the past sixteen years, too, is bullish about GST. “I think Modi will return to power,” he says. “People complain that everything became more expensive and complicated but I think things have become simpler. Now one can’t be stopped legally by thugs pretending to be duty officers.”
A central UP man, Laik regulars a route between his native Bareilly and Pondicherry, from where he proceeds to Siliguri in Bengal via Jaleshwar, then finally back to Bareilly via Bihar. The trip lasts nearly two weeks, with all the halts. After GST came into effect, he saves anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000, he says. What used to be a choking, congested route is today something else; it’s smooth sailing across to Bengal from the Odisha border. “When the checkposts vanished a year ago, we couldn’t believe it. There would be some catch somewhere, we thought, but a year later, we know it’s a no-nonsense system.”
“They’ve started raiding warehouses for e-way bills. And if a bill has even a small error, a massive penalty is imposed.”
Clearly, if there were a Lok Sabha constituency peopled only by truck drivers, there would be no doubt about the majority vote. But transporters have a more involved take. They readily concede the benefits of seamless border passages, but cite problematic issues that have emanated under the new regime itself. The foremost is the validity of the e-way bill.
It’s largely a teething issue, as of now, and should get refined going forward. Logistics firms say the e-way bill has reduced their clerical work by half: in most cases, it’s the supplier who has to generate the e-way bill. “All we have to do is put the vehicle number on the bill and change it when the goods are shifted to another vehicle. The repeated checking of papers and harassment by sales tax officials at every border has stopped. Now, even when their flying squad intercepts our vehicle, they can’t harass the driver. If they stop the vehicle for over two hours, I can lodge a complaint against them. They’ll face the music if our documents are found to be complete,” says Arun Sharma, senior manager, operations, at Om Logistics, a firm that operates across India with a fleet of over 3,000 trucks.
But depending on the distance over which the goods are to be transported, the e-way bill gets a validity period, and the transporter has to ferry and deliver the goods within the specified time. “One truck will be carrying consignments of several parties and the collection, storage, distribution, at times change of vehicle, halts on the way…all of this consumes time. The time given to us under the e-way bill is just not adequate,” says Pradeep Singal, national president, All India Transporters’ Welfare Association.
They are now required to have e-way bills for goods in their warehouses too, he grumbles. “The government demands it and they’ve started raiding warehouses...it’s discomforting. In addition, if there is even a small error in the bill, a massive penalty is imposed,” Singhal says. Mumbai-based GST expert Monish Bhalla calls that a new “leverage for corruption”. There are 17 lakh e-way bills being generated daily across India, Bhalla says, and about two per cent of them have errors—there’s a brief window for rectification and a 100 per cent penalty threat looms.
Besides, as Singhal says, the decentralisation of office registrations under GST has increased procedural hassles. “If a firm has ten branches in ten different states, all of them have to keep separate accounts. That’s increased the paperwork, made the process more complicated. It’s also against the ‘one nation one tax’ spirit, the cornerstone of GST,” he says.
Ramphat Yadav is underwhelmed by the time saved
Malkit Singh Bal, chairman, All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC), speaks for the comity of drivers when he says the goal of seamless transportation of goods has still not been achieved even after GST. One of Bal’s trucks, carrying 25 tonnes of rajma cereal from Maharashtra to Delhi via Gujarat and Rajasthan, exemplifies his words. The passage is still an obstacle course punctuated by RTO gremlins. Says Ramphat Yadav, the grizzled 47-year-old who has driven trucks now for 29 years: “The RTO checkposts and manual verification of documents still eat away a lot of time. When GST came, transporters believed trucks would now cover 350–400 km in a day, as opposed to 250–260 km. But after GST, the average has only gone up to 270-280 km,” he argues. It takes him five days to reach Delhi.
Meanwhile, on the route to Ludhiana, Bindeshwar pulls over after spotting a parked truck and hops down to have a chat with the driver. Then he returns and swings back into his seat with all the swagger of a cowboy. “Poor chap, his vehicle broke down. His employer will send a rescue vehicle in the morning. He can’t even sleep as he has to guard the goods,” he explains, lighting a beedi. “Anyway you rarely get to sleep at night… most of the goods movement happens at night. We catch some sleep here and there during the day, sometimes in the shade of a tree, or in the cabin. There are no rooms for us even at the company hubs,” he laments.
He fishes out a foot-long iron rod with a hook at the end from the tool box and sits down near one of the tyres, running his hand around its surface, feeling for stones, and using the hook to push them out from the zigzag grooves. Once he’s done, he lights another beedi, wipes his slick face and neck with a cloth, and stretches his arms, and drawls, “Let the tyres get some air. They heat up a lot in this weather.”
Soon, it’s only an hour to go for dawn and drowsiness is peaking. He stops at a dhaba to have a cup of tea. A young boy, not more than fifteen, comes running from inside and tells him to leave, pronto. “This is a family dhaba, not meant for truckers! The families don’t come if they see a truck parked here,” he cries. The absence of privilege, the brotherhood of night, failed to spark a thaw.
By Salik Ahmad, Siddhartha Mishra, Ajay Sukumaran, Dola Mitra and Neel Shah