It was in early May when four drivers at the Bhiwandi hub of JFK Transporters, tired of sitting around and twiddling their thumbs during the lockdown, quietly took off with a couple of friends.
They were in one of JFK’s loaded container trucks on a joyride to Delhi and back. The 10-day escapade could have been cut short had the cops acted but CEO Jehaan Kotwal says they refused even to file an FIR.
The next fortnight, another of JFK’s drivers set off on a scheduled run to Kolkata. Unbeknownst to his boss, he took his family along for the ride.
On the return, Kotwal noticed the fully-loaded BharatBenz 3123 make a 300-km detour via Kanpur. The driver dropped his wife and kids off at his village, and called from there to say he would be staying on for a few days.
A week later, the GPS tracker on a third JFK truck in Delhi went dark. For five full days the driver refused to answer calls made to his cellphone. When he did eventually call in his excuse, it was from Sultanpur in Madhya Pradesh, 800 km away.
“He said his father was ill and needed to be attended to, and there would have been no other means for him to get there.” What Kotwal suspects, though, is that the rogue driver used the truck to make a killing carrying desperate home-bound migrants across the border — “at ₹3,000 a person, he’d have pocketed ₹1.5 lakh per trip”.
In each instance of his employees’ lockdown lawlessness, the loss has been entirely Kotwal’s to bear. Events of the last couple of months may have brought out the worst in drivers employed by some of the best-paying fleets in the country — “Every transporter I know can relate at least three experiences like mine,” he says, but being held to ransom by drivers has long been accepted as part of the price of doing business. Despite the surplus of hireable drivers relative to the size of the total fleet — 1.5 times reckons SP Singh of the Indian Foundation for Transportation Research and Training — there is the phenomenon of thousands of the 3.4 million trucks with inter-State and national permits being idled. These are sometimes for months on end because of mercenary drivers who will jump ship for a few rupees more.
Singh puts that down to the fact that the majority are not formally employed or paid the statutory minimum. “Ninety per cent of the 2.5 million transporters won’t register their drivers’ names on their books, won’t pay overtime, ESI, PF, or gratuity, but they pretend to care,” he says.
When in response to their recent request to the Centre for comprehensive driver insurance, they were asked for a list of the drivers they employ, “the best they could come up with was 20 names”.