The wait was frustrating. The truck, which had entered the factory of a consumer durables company near Sriperumbudur to load the wares, emerged after almost 20 hours. It was 7.40 pm on May 1, Wednesday, when this writer boarded the truck. Its destination: Bhiwandi in Maharashtra.

Our idea was to experience, first-hand, the changes in road transportation of goods after the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the billions invested in overhauling the country’s road infrastructure. In the process, has the lot of the drivers — who are critical in ensuring that the wheels of the economy keep moving — changed for the better over the years? The 1,288-km ride, we hoped, could reveal a lot about the transformation in road transportation that policymakers keep parroting about, or the lack of it.

“Documentation took a long time,” said Ram* in a matter-of-fact manner. This lean-built 23-year-old from Maharashtra’s Beed district looked the least like typical truck drivers. “Such delays are common. Companies do not really care about grounding a truck for hours together,” he added in Hindi that had strains of Marathi.

All doubts about his inexperience and driving capabilities vanished as he manoeuvred the truck, an Ashok Leyland Tusker Super 2514 H, with absolute ease. For a nine-year-old vehicle, the truck’s pick-up was unusually good and Ram immediately explained that it was more due to the lower payload weight. The 174 air-conditioners and 63 refrigerators it carried weighed less than five tonnes as against its capacity of 14 tonnes.

As the truck eased past the silk town of Kanchipuram, one could not help but notice the sparseness of the truck’s cabin. Two seats and a long bench behind the seats with a Rexine cushion is all it had. With little or no insulation from the engine, the cabin was fast heating up.

Nag, Ram’s brother-in-law who also doubles up as a support staff, pointed to an opening between the two windscreens. “That is our air-conditioning,” he said. The air that blew into the cabin when the truck was in motion ensured that the heat was not felt. It was a different story when the truck stopped.

About an hour into the drive Ram took a right turn at Ranipet, an industrial town. “We prefer the Chittoor route as there are fewer toll plazas than the Krishnagiri route,” he explained. The difference will be as much as ₹800, he said — a reasonable saving, considering that total toll charges for the entire trip were to the tune of ₹6,500.

Checks and balances

The first checkpost to come up was that of Tamil Nadu (TN) before the truck entered Andhra Pradesh (AP). There were no officials in the middle of the road halting the vehicles. From the side a torch was shone and a whistle blown as the truck passed. Ram acted as if he did not hear it and the truck went through. He kept looking at the rear-view mirror for a while, though.

“Post GST, officials try to stop vehicles more discreetly. They show the torch and/or blow the whistle. If you stop they will take ₹500 even if your documentation is perfect,” he explained. By not stopping he took a risk, he said. “If they chase the truck and stop us, I will be forced to pay a bribe of ₹2,000 and the truck will be halted for many hours,” he added. That explained his intense focus on the rear-view mirror as we passed the checkpost.

Ram explained that prior to GST there were two checkposts on each State border. One was that of sales tax and the other, the Regional Transport Office (RTO). The sales tax checkposts have disappeared but the RTO ones remain. “It is the RTO officials who are notorious. Sales tax officials would let us go if the invoices and other documentation are correct but RTO officials will find some reason to extract a bribe, like, driver not in uniform, the truck has an air horn or does not have a first-aid box, and so on,” he explained.

Within minutes of crossing the TN checkpost, another barrier emerged, this time it was AP’s checkpost. Again a whistle was blown but Ram yelled ‘empty load’ and kept driving. AP RTO officials, busy with other trucks they had stopped, let the truck go. “The story is the same here too. If you stop you will end up paying ₹300 or so as a bribe,” he said.

It was almost midnight when the truck crossed Chittoor and headed towards Kolar. The journey was bumpy and slow as four-laning of the highway was in progress. It was 1.20 am when the truck crossed the AP border (Ram yet again deftly dodged AP RTO officials) and entered Karnataka.

The scene at the Karnataka checkpost was different. There were no officials in sight. Ram parked the truck and headed into the RTO office some distance away, surprisingly without any documents. “In Karnataka it is very simple. Just pay ₹200 per truck while entering and exiting, they let you through. Unless they are suspicious, they do not ask for documents or inspect the vehicle,” he explained. In all, it took just about 10 minutes.

Night awaits

As the truck headed towards Bengaluru, Ram announced that he was going to drive through the night. “I rested well while waiting for the documentation to be ready at the factory,” he said. He had set his eyes on the incentive of ₹1,700 he will get if he reaches the goods to Bhiwandi within 48 hours.

There was another motivation too. This was his last trip this season. He and Nag were heading home to their village Therla. “It is five months since we came from the village. Ram is missing his daughter who will be a year-old soon,” Nag said. The plan was to reach Bhiwandi by Friday (May 3), offload the goods and reach their village, which is 35 km from Beed town, by Saturday.

It was almost 4 am when the truck entered Bengaluru. The Nelamangala Toll plaza that soon came up was packed with trucks. Still it took just about 10 minutes, by far the longest in the trip, to pass through, thanks to FASTag. In fact, most of the toll plazas were a breeze taking less than a minute or two. This flies against the constant complaints by truck operators about the time lost in toll plazas. “They should try using FASTag,” quipped Ram.

As the sun ushered in Thursday, the truck had left Bengaluru and Tumakuru behind and was heading towards Chitradurga, a town famous for its fort. The roads got more undulated here. Before long you notice Ram shifting the gear to neutral when the road dips, allowing gravity to power his vehicle. “I do that to save fuel. It is through these savings that I earn my income,” he explained. An all-new remuneration model was revealed.

Ram, being a part-time driver (he tends to his family’s fields during the monsoon period between May and October), is not paid a salary. His income comes from savings in fuel, incentives and whatever he saves from the ₹3,000 his employer pays for food and bribes. “I am given 400 litres for each way. How much of diesel I save at the end of the return trip is paid to me in cash,” he said. This time he had managed to save 50 litres (both ways). That got him ₹3,500. “I end up making, in all, ₹12,000 comfortably for every return trip,” he added. But his ability to realise more income is hampered by the fact that he gets to make just two or three round trips in a month. A clear case of demand-supply mis-match (too many trucks chasing too few a load).

As the truck drove past Davangere, Hubballi (formerly Hubli) and Dharwad, Ram showed no sign of tiredness. He has been on the road continuously for over 20 hours but for brief stops for tea and food. The terrain got tough as Belagavi (formerly Belgaum) approached. Trucks were inching their way ahead on the steep ghat road. Ram finally announced, to everyone’s relief, that he will halt for the night after Kolhapur.

Crossing into Maharashtra was a breeze but the roads were crowded as locals used the highway to commute. It was 9 pm on Thursday (May 2) when Ram halted at Karmani, after a 26-hour ride, for a night’s rest.

A long journey

Most drivers end up sleeping under their truck. “No one cares to offer us decent facilities,” rued Ram. That is a valid statement. Companies invest hundreds of crores to build manufacturing facilities but they do not create decent facilities for truck drivers to rest and freshen up inside the factory. After all, they entrust the drivers with goods worth many crores. Salaries are low, cabin conditions are bad and most importantly, there is no value for their time. They need to push themselves very hard to make money.

“The irony is that the demand-supply equation does not work here,” said Ram adding “when there is a shortage of drivers, the condition of the existing lot should ideally improve but that is not the case.”

It is an early start next day (May 3). Within hours, Satara and Pune are behind as the truck heads towards Mumbai on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. Near Navi Mumbai, Ram takes a right turn to enter the Mumbra bypass. “We used to spend a lot of time at the checkpost outside Mumbai due to Octroi. Not any more,” he said. A traffic snarl and a stop by police (the truck had a Karnataka registration) later, the truck reaches Bhiwandi by 2.15 pm.

It took Ram just 42.35 hours to cover 1,288 km. In the days before GST and before India’s highways were the four-lane beauties they are today, it would have taken about four days to cover the distance. Though some issues remain, the flow of goods along Indian highways has definitely become smoother and faster.

*Name changed to protect identity of the person