Two-third of trucks out of business

Rows and rows of empty trucks parked in godowns and pit stops across the country have become a grim reminder of the economic cost of India’s 21-day lockdown.

Rows and rows of empty trucks parked in godowns and pit stops across the country have become a grim reminder of the economic cost of India’s 21-day lockdown. With most industrial activity grinding to a halt after PM Narendra Modi’s March 24 lockdown call, over twothirds of India’s 52 lakh medium and heavy duty trucks and their crews have been left with little to do even as freight costs begin soaring. Sporadic obstructions to freight movement created by local police, for notified essential commodities in some cases, have only added to the industry’s woes.

But, even the MHA’s March 30 notification allowing the free movement of all goods, regardless of whether they are essential or non-essential, is unlikely to bring road freight back to normal in a hurry. The real problem, experts say, is the complete collapse of the manufacturing and infrastructure value chain, since most factories, retail outlets and construction sites have shut shop for the period unless they’ve been classified as essential. “As far as the government is concerned, there are no obstacles to freight movement on paper now. But, 60% of the road cargo pie comes from the manufacturing sector, another 10-15% from infra and export-related activity.

Two-third of trucks out of business

Two-third of trucks out of business

These sectors are hardly operating now,” pointed out S P Singh, senior fellow, Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training. India’s trucks haul an average of 6,000 mn tonnes of goods per annum, or 500 mt a month, but the lockdown has taken out nearly 75% of this business out of the equation, according to the IFTRT.

Freight costs of essential goods skyrocket as trucks stay off roads

ONLY 30% or 15-odd lakh trucks are plying on roads.

Police units obstrusive This figure stands even lower in states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. M R Venkatesh, president of the Tamil Nadu State Lorry Owners’ Federation, says only 5-6 per cent of the state’s 4.5 lakh trucks are active. Of Andhra’s 3 lakh trucks, less than 1 per cent may be active, they say. “Drivers are not ready to operate vehicles for fear of infection. Also, all factories and warehouses are shut… with no raw material and finished goods to be transported,” said AP Lorry Owners Association general secretary YV Eswara Rao. Police harassment in some cases has made matters worse.

“Despite the order from the Central government, the highhandedness of personnel manning check posts, and in some cases harassment, extortion and beating of drivers, creating panic among them, remains a concern,” said Kultaran Singh Atwal, president, All India Motor Transport Congress, “Either the directions from the top have not percolated down to personnel on the ground effectively or it is being willfully ignored”.

“Many trucks carrying goods from other states, especially from northern states, are being stopped at their states for no reasons,” noted KK Hamza, state president, Kerala State Lorry Owners Federation. In many states, large numbers of drivers have also been put into 14-day quarantines. According to S Jawahar Basha, vice-president, South Indian Motor Transport Association, trucks with large consignments are stuck at state borders. “Our drivers are stranded with no food or water arrangements, making it highly difficult for us to manage the situation,” he said.

Rates for essential goods transport rising

This confluence of factors has resulted in a rather counterintuitive increase freight costs for essential commodities even as over 75 per cent of demand has been taken out of the picture. In the normal course, a trucker transporting mangoes from Hyderabad to Delhi-NCR, for instance, would have the opportunity to load up industrial goods for the return haul. However, with most factories now shut, truckers are charging twice or thrice the earlier rate for one-way transport in order to cover return trips with empty cargo holds.

“So a trucker who used to charge `1.1 lakh for a Hyderabad- Delhi round trip, is now charging `95,000 for oneway trip. This is leading to freight costs soaring for essential commodities too, and they will begin reflecting in retail prices,” Singh warned. (With inputs from Sesa Sen, Arshad Khan, Binita Jaiswal, S Anil, M Sabari, Anbuselvan B, Bismah Malik, Donita Jose and Jonathan Ananda)


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