More than half of Indian truckers have paid a bribe in the course of their work, as per a survey conducted by the SaveLIFE foundation. The annual bribe amount in trucking operations stands at around Rs 47,852.28 crore ($6.7 billion), nearly as much as the amount the government spent on setting up infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh over five years, as per the study.
Their lives are so stressful and unfulfilling that 84% of truckers surveyed said they would not recommend this job to their family, said the study on the on-road life of truckers titled ‘Status of Truck Drivers in India’.
The survey in 10 cities among 1,217 truck drivers and 101 fleet owners (1,318 in all) during 2018 was funded by automobile manufacturer Mahindra and conducted by SaveLIFE foundation, a Delhi-based NGO.
Here are some other key findings of the study:
Trucks account for 69% of countrywide freight traffic in India, according to the Economic Survey 2018-19, and contribute about 3.06% to gross value addition. Yet many truck drivers are overworked. About a quarter of the truck drivers featured in a 2018 study complained of sleep deprivation.
Up to 53% truckers reported physical and psychological issues such as fatigue, insomnia, obesity, backache, joint and neck pain, poor vision, breathlessness, stress and loneliness, as we reported in February 2020.
Fear of harassment, long delays
Nearly 40% of truck drivers complained of harassment by police/road traffic officials and pointed to this as the second biggest reason for job dissatisfaction, as per the survey. Their biggest problem was low and irregular incomes.
“Firstly, they are subjected to huge amounts of harassment in all states of the country and that is a constant reality negotiate all the time,” said Rajat Ubhaykar, author of Truck De India: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan, a travelogue of truck journeys. The degree of harassment is horrifying, he said, because right from the highway police to the regional transport office (RTO) official, everyone sees truck drivers “as fair game for extortion”.
The second thing that struck him, Ubhaykar said, “is the tremendous amount of constant sleep deprivation and tiredness that they go through and that I feel is the major cause of accidents”.
During the course of their business, truckers need to engage with officials of various departments for many reasons -- vehicle registration, renewal of permits and fitness certificates and daily encounters with traffic or highway police.
They end up having to bribe officials for various reasons -- sometimes out of fear of harassment or anxiety about losing business, and at other times to ensure speedy processing of papers for permits and licenses, the SaveLIFE foundation study found. Fleet owners face problems related to the registration of vehicles, permits, fitness certificates and taxes.
Authorities ask for bribes directly or indirectly, alleged nearly 45% of fleet owners. Almost 23% complained about having to spend long hours getting documentation done. Some “hired” touts to get their work done at government offices.
The bribe estimated by SaveLIFE, Rs 47,852.28 crore, is twice the amount (Rs 22,048.20 crore) calculated by a Transparency International study in 2006-07.
Truck drivers were also asked about any bribe they may have paid during their last trip. On average, truckers said they had paid bribes amounting to Rs 1,257 to various authorities. City-wise, Guwahati topped the list of bribe giving at Rs 2,360, followed by Jaipur at Rs 1,803. The bribe amounts were lower in the southern cities and in Delhi-NCR.
Who is bribed and why
Most truckers said they had bribed highway police (67%), RTO officials (44%) and local gangs (26%), the survey found. Most bribes (41%) had been paid for ‘no reason’ (that is, the respondents did not cite a reason), for not wearing seat belts (13%), and for ‘mata ka jagran’ (33.8%).
“This is a routine for drivers and it is often better to pay the bribe of Rs 100-200 rather than arguing with the authorities,” Ubhaykar said, “Because the discretion is so much that the cop who might have taken Rs 200 will then take Rs 500. This is the kind of power imbalance that exists, because of which truck drivers do not argue.”
Approximately two-third of truckers interviewed claimed to have bribed traffic or highway police. In Guwahati, 97% of interviewed truckers said they had paid a bribe at some stage, in Chennai, 89%, and in Delhi-NCR 84%. The least numbers, 17%, were reported from Vijayawada.
Nearly 44% of truck drivers confirmed that they had paid a bribe to an RTO official. But in Bengaluru and Guwahati, this percentage stood at over 90%. The average bribe given to RTO officials was Rs 1,172, with the range varying between Rs 571 and Rs 2,386 across cities.
Almost 28% of truck drivers did not cite the reason for paying a bribe. Of the reasons given, overloading (17.3%) was a major one, followed by crossing the state border (10.6%) and negligent driving (9.3%).
In addition, some 2% of the surveyed truckers said they had paid bribes to tax officials or flying squads -- an average amount of Rs 850. Guwahati paid the most, nearly 19%, followed by Bangalore (2%).
About two-third of truck drivers said they were not given any reason for the bribe demand, while 14% said they were asked to bribe during checking of goods and for over-speeding.
One-fourth of the surveyed truck drivers said they had paid extortion sums to local groups or gangs. Guwahati topped the list at nearly 90%, followed by 45% in Kolkata and 39% in Vijayawada. The average extortion amount was Rs 608. The highest amount was paid by drivers in Jaipur (Rs 1,000) followed by Guwahati (Rs 985). Nearly 46% said they were not given any reason for the demand; 34% said they were extorted in the name of ‘mata ka jaagran’, 13% were simply intimidated into paying up.
No dignity of labour
There is no dignity in truck drivers’ jobs, said Piyush Tiwari, founder of SaveLIFE foundation. “If a policeman stops a civilian they talk with more respect than with truck drivers. They speak to truck drivers with utter contempt and disgust. Most of the time they are stopped for not wearing their prescribed company uniforms,” he said, adding, “ These guys drive for more than 12 hours in extremely heated cabins which forces them to drive in their underwear. In order to deal with the fatigue, bad working conditions and the lack of dignity and stress, many of them have turned to drug abuse and this in turn is a huge risk for other road users.”
For working long hours in trying conditions, truck drivers take home meagre earnings. Of those surveyed, 65% said their salary ranged from Rs 10,000-20,000. Seven of 10 (70.4%) said they received a salary on a monthly basis, the remaining on a per-trip or per-km basis.
Nearly 50% of those surveyed said their earnings -- salary, wages and incentives -- are “unattractive”, and 60% said the trucking profession is “unattractive” for the monetary remuneration.
Meanwhile truck drivers who said they were satisfied with their professions cited top three reasons were: easy money (56%), requirement of low educational qualification or technical knowledge (48%) and freedom of work (44%).
Drivers also said that low levels of education and lack of skills make it difficult for them to find alternative employment options. Hence, truck driving becomes an obvious choice.
SaveLIFE foundation estimates that nearly 22% of truck drivers abuse drugs. “This is contributing to such a large number of deaths and accidents in road accidents for trucks and other large vehicles,” Tiwari said. Trucks form the third largest group of vehicles to be involved in road mishaps (12.3%) and road-accident fatalities (15.8%), we reported in February 2020.
Overall, 48% of the surveyed truck drivers rated their working conditions as 'bad’; only 15% said their working conditions were ‘good’.
The top five reasons reasons for dissatisfaction were: long working hours (51.4%), no fixed salaries or standardisation of wages (38.3%), exploitation and corruption by enforcement authorities (37.1%), poor condition of road infrastructure (27.5%), and bad behaviour of the police (27.4%).
Nearly 84% of surveyed truck drivers said they would never recommend driving or trucking as a career; at least half said the truck driving profession is unattractive in all aspects--in terms of safety and security on the road (66.7%), as a career option (61.5%), and being unconducive for family life (56.3%).
“The lifestyle is next to a sanitation worker who as you know do not want their children to be sanitation workers,” Tiwari said.
Impact on the economy
India’s transport and logistics sector is short of 2.5 million drivers, according to figures cited by the road transport minister in September 2019.
“There is a large number of trucks standing without drivers, the current set of drivers do not want anyone from their families to drive trucks,” Tiwari said. “In the next few years India will face an even bigger shortfall of drivers because of not taking care of them. A large number of grains and vegetables are being destroyed because there are not enough truck drivers to carry goods around.”
Some experts say the law is problematic. “The essential reform needs to happen in the law itself. For example, the Motor Vehicles Act has so many vague sections that allows RTO officials to penalise drivers on various pretexts. For example, truck drivers can be penalised for creating noise pollution,” said Ubhaykar.
The SaveLIFE foundation study recommends three solutions: improvement in social security, rethinking infrastructure design, and increasing use of digital technology.
“In social security, we have recommended that all truck drivers be covered under health insurance scheme and also an accident cover scheme. Some sort of scheme that covers their families in case of loss of life due to an accident,” Tiwari said.
In terms of infrastructure, there should be proper rest stops every 100 km. “We are talking about proper parking bays with security, proper grooming and resting places, and clean food and water,” Tiwari said, adding that these changes must be incorporated in highway tenders and contracts so that they become a part of highway design and culture.
Technology can help curb corruption by introducing transparency through dashboard cameras, for instance. An alarm system can alert the driver and the fleet operator in case of fatigue, and help avoid accidents. “These systems are being tested in India right now,” Tiwari said
(Salve is a contributor with IndiaSpend)