Driving for days with little food. Stuck in highways unable to repair broken down vehicles. Quarantined in outside states with no way to return. Despite being key players in moving essentials, lorry drivers across the country have been facing these and plenty more issues during the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Hotels, tea shops and workshops are shut, and drivers have been forced to manage with what they have, or through food distributed at certain toll plazas or petrol stations. Workshops and dhabas along national highways are set to operate from April 20, which will mitigate some of the issues. However, there are plenty more concerns for the state's truck industry, which the lorry owners' associations want the government to address.
Among key issues they want to be addressed is the NHAI planning to resume toll collection from April 20, and the Tamil Nadu government's delay in giving them clear guidelines. The lockdown has severely affected the industry, with only 10 to 20 per cent of the state's 4.5 lakh lorries operating.
There's either no demand for operations due to shutting down of factories, or the drivers are unavailable due to fear of the virus. Even when drivers are available, many are stuck in outside states or in other towns unable to reach their vehicles.
"We are ready to help like doctors, police, corporation staff and other workers. Our drivers are ready to cooperate but the transport minister/commission has not given any guidelines," says S Yuvaraj, president of Tamil Nadu State Sand Lorry Owners’ Federation. "They should talk to the associations and understand what the problems are.
"The government should also give the drivers awareness on how to operate safely. They should call on the drivers to work like police, corporation and other workers. For now, it's all up to the individual owners to make drivers feel safe and convince them to work. But when the government gives drivers confidence, they'll feel safer and more drivers will come out. Once more vehicles start moving, more items will be available and prices will be in control. In the same way, we are ready to carry goods to other states too instead of them going waste here."
Private truck operators, especially ones in 'hot spots', find it impossible to open their business unless public transport and hotels resume.
The government wants us to send private vehicles to bring staff. We have to feed them too because hotels aren't open," says an operator based out of Coimbatore. "We have no option but to shut down our offices and godowns till normalcy resumes. Much of our business is linked to other states like Maharashtra and Gujarat, so till they open up we'll be in trouble. It will only affect our drivers further. We can take care of them for now but we have our limits too."
Collecting tolls in these times will add to their woes, feel the associations.
"We go empty to different parts of the country and bring essentials, so we are already losing out on one way's wages," explains Dhanraj, treasurer of the state lorry owners federation of Tamil Nadu. "The situation will continue even after 20th. Only when industries open completely will our situation get better. For now, only essentials are allowed and most of them has already been brought in, so our work is reducing. Drivers are ready to work even in this situation, but where is the work? We are waiting for factories to open. It will take more than one year for the industry to get back to normal.
"Collecting toll now will add to our burdens. 25 percent of our profits go to tolls."