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Why freight moves so slowly on Indian roads

Underpaid truck drivers drive at low speeds to save on diesel

Akshat Kaushal 

Why freight moves so slowly on Indian roads

India's poor highway infrastructure and administrative inefficiencies at state borders are often blamed for the difficulty in transporting freight quickly between factories and ports through roads. The frequently cited reasons are fewer highways with sufficient lanes, long queues at toll collection points, and harassment by police and local governments.

But, Akshat Kaushal's five-day journey on a truck between Dharuhera and Mumbai reveals some other factors pulling down India's road transport efficiency are entirely different, at least on this busy sector that entailed passing through four borders (Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra) and accounts for a substantial proportion of total goods movement by road. More worryingly, the gaps in security checks on this busy and strategically located stretch are a cause for concern

The travel starts on a truck is transporting 20 tonnes of rice from a warehouse in north-west Delhi to Mumbai. It is a four-axle truck, driven by Rajesh Balai (name changed), who has driven on this route, Highway-8, for two decades. While this correspondent's journey begins from Dharuhera near Gurgaon, Balai has been driving since last night.

Balai, 35, had entered Delhi late that previous night and exited early morning after loading his truck. Delhi prohibits entry of trucks during day, which means transporters lose on one day. Similar regulations exist in Mumbai, which accounts for another lost day.

The journey between Dharuhera and Mumbai is around 1,400 km. The fastest way to reach on land is by the Rajdhani Express, which covers it in 16 hours. Balai will take around 60 hours, around four times more.

He meets this correspondent dressed in pinstriped black trousers and a light blue shirt, at a truck service station in Dharuhera. His left ear has a Bluetooth headset and he carries a Sony smartphone, which he uses to WhatsApp his friends. Before the journey begins, he calls his girlfriend in Surat and wishes her luck for her final-year B.Com exam. After a short prayer, he pulls the truck on the highway.

A few minutes into the journey, he says, "I hope this journey goes off well." Adding, "We began at an inauspicious time. I didn't realise it was 2.45 pm. We should have waited 15 minutes more, as I never drive when the clock is at pauna (quarter)."

However, Balai soon confesses it isn't the inauspicious start to the journey that is really troubling him as much as how much diesel he will save during this trip.

"The truck owner has given me 800 litres for a two-way trip . Anything I save is mine. But it looks like I will lose money on this trip, as the truck is consuming a lot of diesel," he says, as he fiddles with a switch on the dashboard which flashes how many kilometres the truck has moved on a litre of diesel consumed.

From Gurgaon to Panvel
  • Day 1: After 10 pm, Balai , the truck driver, enters Delhi from Gurgaon. He had waited all evening for Delhi’s gates to open. He spends the night in Alipur, a north-west Delhi locality, where the truck is loaded with 20 tonnes of rice. The rice is to be delivered in Panvel near Mumbai.
  • Day 2: Balai exits Delhi early in the morning, parks his truck at a service station in Dharuhera to be serviced. Around 2.30 pm, the truck leaves. As the day ends, the truck crosses Jaipur and is parked at Kishanganj in Rajasthan.
  • Day 3: The truck crosses Udaipur and enters Gujarat at around 6 pm. Bribes are given on both sides of the border crossings. Vadodara is crossed around midnight and it is parked.
  • Day 4: At Bharuch, the journey faces its first interruption due to heavy traffic. An hour is wasted as a new bridge is being constructed on the Narmada. Passing through Surat, the truck enters Maharashtra. Bribes are again paid. In the evening, Balai parks his truck at Vasai, as he can’t enter Mumbai because of entry restrictions before 8 pm.
  • Day 5: Balai enters Mumbai early in the morning and later unloads the truck at Panvel.

At present, the figure is 3.6. He aims to reach four.

"The only way I can make money on this trip is by driving slow. You give me sufficient diesel and I will reach Mumbai in 30 hours. But, when you give me just enough diesel and not sufficient salary, I will go at my pace," he says.

The average speed at which Balai drives between Delhi and Mumbai is around 45 kph, much below the potential of his truck. According to him, if he drives at this speed, the truck's engine consumes less diesel. To prove his point, he points to other trucks on the road, all of which drive at similar speeds, with the intention of saving on diesel.

Only two kinds of trucks race past Balai. The first carry vegetables or fruit. The others are engaged with courier companies. Balai says they can drive at these speeds as they are paid better (around Rs 25,000 a month) and find little incentive in making money by either saving on diesel or skipping toll roads. In contrast, he skips four toll gates near Godhra in Gujarat (saving around Rs 1,100) by taking the state highway, which though it reduces the distance, is an unsafe route through notorious jungles known for truck robberies.

The five-day journey with Balai reveals the quest to save on diesel by underpaid drivers is single-handedly pulling down the efficiency of the sector. Contrary to common perception, there were very few instances (Bharuch being one) where the transit time increased because of traffic jams or the poor condition of roads. Also, loss of time due to waiting at toll-gates was also not significant. Between Dharuhera and Mumbai, there are 18 toll gates: 11 in Rajasthan and seven in Gujarat, where Balai's truck waited for an hour.

  • As most drivers are underpaid, they look at other ways of making money which pull down the efficiency of the sector. The common ways of doing so are by driving slow to save on diesel, skipping toll roads and employing a single driver instead of two.
  • The transport companies are yet to adapt to modern managerial practices. For instance, the time cycle of the trucks are not designed to factor in the entry restrictions in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. This leads to time loss.
  • Corruption is common on this route. Bribes are paid routinely as most trucks violate several rules.
  • There is no mechanism to check the nature of goods being transferred.
  • Unlike the commonly held perception, poor road infrastructure did not appear as the prime reason delaying the speed of transporting goods from factories.

A disquieting aspect is the institutionalisation of corruption on this route. The process of bribe taking and giving works with perfect smoothness. At every state border crossing, when the truck enters a state and when it exits, bribes are exchanged. The bribe-taker is often from the staff of the Regional Transport Office, who wielding wooden sticks, forces trucks to stop. No questions are asked or any inspection carried out. As a matter of routine, the driver pays either Rs 100 or Rs 200 to these men. Balai paid these bribes while exiting Rajasthan, while entering and exiting Gujarat, and while entering Maharashtra. Not once during his 1,500-km journey was he questioned over what goods he was carrying in the truck.

Transporters prefer this arrangement, as it allows them to break laws with impunity. Doing so ensures higher profit. One, almost all trucks have constructed an additional fuel tank. This allows them to carry 400 litres more diesel than prescribed under law. In spite of the presence of fuel pumps every few kilometres, transporters do this as they are able to carry extra fuel from states where diesel is cheaper. Balai loaded his truck with 800 litres from Dharuhera, where diesel is around Rs 7 cheaper than in Mumbai, a saving of around Rs 5,600.

Also, only a few trucks carry two drivers, as they are required to do. The others travel with a single driver, to cut costs. This is another reason for the poor efficiency of our road transport as trucks with single-driver trucks halt for the driver to catch on his sleep.

First Published: Tue, January 05 2016. 00:29 IST