India cover feature  

Trucking in India

by John Aalborg


That dim, shaky, single head-light lurching toward your rig in the night is not a motorbike.


There is no moon, and you are bone tired at the wheel. "Truck," the cleaner says. (Professional drivers in India often carry a boy with them, and these helpers are known as "cleaners.") This boy's night vision is like radar, so you heed what he says but his warnings always miss something. "This side," he says. You hit the brakes, swerve to the left, and hope there aren't any cows snoozing on the shoulder. The boy speaks up. "No, the light this side! The good one!" Your tires are crumbling the side of the road because in India there usually is no shoulder, but your rig makes it safely back onto the pavement just as the approaching, overloaded and top-heavy Tata diesel groans on by. A pair of large swastikas, the most ancient good-luck symbol on earth, adorn the sides of the only marker light, and you can hear every tortured piece of that overweight truck moan and squeak because your windows are rolled down; the one on your side because there is no AC, the boy's side because you cannibalized the crank mechanism when the one on your side broke. But that was months ago and a different boy.


Here in the U.S. where safety is king--where even bald eagles may soon be required to wear helmets--the rule is two working headlights firmly mounted and connected to an alternator free of disease. In India, this is a rule also, but without the enforcement component. For the American over-the-road trucker who feels victimized by endless safety regulations, a week driving the sub-continent of India might just kindle an attitude adjustment. A generally English-speaking country where the language of government is Hindi--there are seventeen other official tongues and a literacy rate of 60 percent--road rules are ignored and truck inspections are flexible and change by situation. The population density is scary, and most roads are under-maintained. The most common heavy vehicles are overloaded, straight Tata diesels, sometimes illegally running on kerosene, which haul most of the freight in India, with railroads doing only thirty percent. In addition to taxicabs and cars of all descriptions and health, the trucker driving these huge straight-rigs must give way to camel, bullock and human-powered carts. These hay and grain-fed tractor-trailers far outnumber diesel semis, which are rare in India. Straight sea-container trucks therefore often display dangerous overhang.


The first traffic rule, of course, mandates what side of the road to drive on. As in England, this means the left, but for Indian truck drivers, this means you start your trip on the left. Where you position your HGV (Heavy Goods Vehicle) after that depends on what is up ahead. Since Lady Luck rarely visits this part of the world, much of what you see is on your side of the road, whether it is going your way or not. "One Way" signs merely indicate that it's time to sound the horns. Extra loud horns are prized in India--it's the best country on Earth to study the Doppler effect. Often, at night, you can see the headlights of an approaching vehicle dim before you can hear its electric horn. There are cows everywhere and sometimes more monkeys than you have ever seen in one place, vacuuming up whatever edible garbage they can find, the pickings better on the road than off, but they generally scoot across the highway faster than a truck can strike them. Cows, on the other hand, plunk down wherever they happen to be to chew the cud. Cows are sacred to the Hindus and they have a home-free ticket all over the country. If you hit one of those with your truck, it can be worse karma than running over a human, so cows wander all over the roads without regard to the direction of vehicle traffic. This results in trucks moving in either direction using the same lane: right, left, or straight down the middle, especially in forested areas where laundry can be found hanging smack along the road where the sun can get in. Since most roads have no shoulders (but an occasional boulder), and since the lane edges are crumbling away, straight down the middle is the route of choice. (India spends 0.7 percent of their low GDP on roads, the U.S. 1.3, Japan 3.9.)


The Indian truck itself is often festooned with beautiful artwork, colorful gewgaws and slogans, making a convoy look like a circus is moving to town. It's all downhill from there, however. For an American, the trucking experience in India would border on the bizarre. Imagine yourself on the Jaipur-Delhi highway--no seat belts, no airbags--pulling into a truckstop, or "dhaba" as they're called, for a broken motor-mount bracket. This particular plaza doesn't include any bear wranglers or snake charmers clogging the entrance road, and you luck out on a pull-through spot in the front row facing the food kiosks and repair shops. The tiny buildings are tin and tar paper shacks so full of stuff that the mechanics have to work on the oil-soaked ground outside. Directly in front of you, plunked in the main aisle, is a haphazard row of narrow, wood-framed rental cots, some with pillows of dubious provenance but no mattresses. Just behind that you see a mechanic squatting with his bottom a flea's-width from the oil-packed dirt, tearing down a transmission to the mainshaft on a small steel workbench with five-inch legs. With luck, after passing a table with bottled water for sale--also provenance unknown--you find a mechanic who is willing to remove your faulty part. Your cleaner boy in the meantime finds a blacksmith shop where the broken and twisted bracket will be copied by hand-forging a new one on what appears to be a charcoal-fired furnace. A boy, who can't be more than ten years old, is pumping a pedal-powered bellows. Beside him is an antique pedal-powered drill press.


While you wander about outside, waiting, you consider using one of those cots (but with your own pillow) where at least you can rest full-length without having to catch up later by sleeping on the hard, barely-foamed cab seat. You amble down to the end of this littered landscape and gaze at the beautiful mountain range beyond. The contrast is exhilarating and eerie. The temperature, however, is dropping fast and night is falling. During the night, on the rickety cot and wrapped in blankets you carried from your truck, the stars are the brightest you have ever seen.


Mark Moxon, the travel writer, describes a night scene at another petrol bunk: "Trucks with missing wheels are propped up on piles of stones; sump oil is drained onto the street where it collects in black, dangerous-looking puddles that even the cows won't drink; engines are tested regularly, revved up to high speeds while they churn big clouds of noxious fumes out into the street (Indian trucks have their exhaust pipes out of the side, so if one passes you while you're walking, prepare for black trousers); meanwhile truckers try to catch some sleep in their cramped cabs, somehow managing to ignore the hellish clanging going on all around. It's a 24-hour event and at night the whole scene, only lit by headlights and the occasional fire, takes on an unearthly air as men walking in front of headlights cast huge shadows in the fume-
filled air."*


The next afternoon, you pick up your part, which has just been pulled from a hot, steel hardening case full of ground animal bone. The blacksmith holds your new bracket with a pair of tongs and hits it with a hammer. It rings like a bell. He then strikes your original piece, which results in a dull thud. He grins, you grin, and soon you will be on
your way.


For a country as huge as India, with the second largest population on earth (just behind China) and the economy on the rise, you would think that large trucking fleets would rule and there would be a driver shortage. The reality is that trucking is a cottage industry in India, with countless family companies--some registered, some not--running only one or just a few units. The caste system, although outlawed years ago, is still the operative factor and drivers have to grub about in the lower half of this social system. Besides being poorly paid, they are subject to being shorted on that pay, forced to work long runs--sometimes on a single, full night's sleep in a week--and may even get docked for a truck part which failed during a long haul. Bosses, who use the same type of stick Indian police use to control crowds, are known to give a complaining driver a good beating. The truck driver is India's lifeline--as here in the U.S.--but yet the Indian driver's life and well-being are not respected. Nor are the drivers welcome in hospitals because they are rarely provided with insurance by their employer.


Indian truck dispatch can also approach the bizarre. Drivers are frequently sent out to distant cities without regard to the difficulties they will face when passing through some of the 28 states and seven "union territories" that comprise the sub-continent. When copies of manifests and other documentation are not provided by the company boss, it is up to the driver to figure out how to make enough copies to turn in at checkpoints. E-ZPass? Not! Imagine yourself back in a long line of trucks waiting for clearance. Up ahead you see a driver, short and slightly built, who has just purchased the necessary copies from a fax machine across the road, the machine mounted on a donkey cart and powered by a 12-volt car battery. The driver is now back in the traffic lane, standing beside his truck and bending over a guardrail on his tiptoes as he hands up a sheaf of fresh but limp documentation. The checkpoint official's countertop is as high as the top of the man's dark head. He hands up his folded money. Whether it is a fee or a fine, you cannot tell. Afterwards, the driver clambers back up into his cab and heads out, starting, as usual and as required by law, by driving on the left side of the road. The exhaust from his rig is pouring black clouds of kerosene smoke. When you finally make it to the head of the line, you see a more ominous cloud of smoke about a mile up ahead. Two trucks have collided in the middle of the two lanes and the impact has burst the thin-walled fuel tanks on both rigs. The cows or motorbikes, which both drivers had swerved to avoid, have moved on and none of the other traffic is stopping to help.


In cities and some residential areas, the humps you see running across the road from every building are not speed bumps, but dirt-covered water, sewer and utility lines. The bump is unpaved to make location, maintenance and repair easier. You want to ease over those because the city police carry the big stick and a gun. But keep in mind that in most areas of India, the cops go home in the evening and after that the roads belong to Lady Luck. Take care; drive carefully.


*Published with permission. To read more, visit:

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