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Exploitation Abound in West Bengal’s Freight Transport Industry: Part One

Union leaders allege corrupt practices by TMC activists that exhaust any margin left for the truck drivers and their helpers. This, adding to the regular barrage of fines penalised by the police under the amended Motor Vehicles Act, has made survival in the sector highly challenging.

In this two part series, we look at the condition of workers in the freight and passenger transport sectors in West Bengal. Each sector has faced losses since the pandemic, which has worsened by the ruling State government’s non-action and alleged corruption. In the first part, we look at the condition of truck and lorry drivers, while in the second, we focus on private and public taxis as well as buses in the state.

Kolkata: Sunil Yadav (43) is a driver with a transport agency with more than 22 years experience in the sector. His woes after the lockdown period have increased multifold as the owners do not give any guarantee of work. The Tata 2516 truck that he drives has got an all India permit, and yet, after his last trip to Assam, he was forced to sit idle at home for a month before getting his next trip. Originally a resident of Begusarai of Bihar, Sunil lives in a one room dingy quarter in Cossipore area of north Kolkata. Talking to NewsClick, he shared that during the lockdown period he nearly starved, taking meals only once a day , as his priority was to send whatever money he had back home to his family.

Earlier the transport agency owner used to give him expenses incurred on the various trips on a day to day basis, but now only a lump sum amount is given, Yadav said. On the last Assam trip he was given Rs 10,000 as expenses, including money for police fines and his food and stay.

Police fines and miscellaneous expenses eat away most of the amount and he stays in his truck in the night along with his 18 year old helper Bhojla, a resident of his village in Begusarai. Bhojlal cooks khichdi daily with his Janata stove, kept at the back of his cabin.

Often,Yadav has to pay from his own pocket after taking on his journeys, like what happened in the last Assam trip. After working for nearly 144 hours at a stretch his daily wage falls short of even Rs 500 daily.

Yadav’s case is no exception. In fact, the transport workers in the state are one of the most exploited category of workers, even when the whole transportation economy with more than one lakh trucks and lorries plying each day is dependent on them. The khalashis or the helpers too are equally exploited in the industry. This can be judged from the fact that earlier truck owners used to give helpers a salary different from the trip expenses paid to the driver. This is no longer the case and most of the khalashis get about Rs 200 per day, after assisting the drivers on the road trip.

Now there are no experienced khalasis available and teenagers often take up the roles. Bhojlal is 17 years old and aspires to become a driver in the coming years. He gets Rs 180 from Sunil Yadav per day.

President of West Bengal Janpath Mazdoor (Transport Workers’) Union, Nepal Deb Bhattacharya told NewsClick that “The greatest danger that the workers are facing is from the police who penalise the drivers even at slightest mistakes. This situation has worsened after the draconian new Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Act, which imposes steep penalties and a single accident eats away even the driving licence of the drivers. If this goes on then getting the drivers will be a difficulty in the near future.”

Another hindrance is that the number of unofficial local toll taxes erected allegedly by activists of ruling-TMC has increased the cost of each trip to a large extent. This cost the transport agency owners are unwilling to pay. As a result the drivers often have to take diversions to avoid the unofficial toll tax barriers, resulting in road accidents.

Bhattacharya also claimed that there is no guarantee of work and often a driver after coming home from a round trip finds themselves without a job. “The sectoral workers reels under poverty, and even after putting in hard work they are not rewarded as per their ability to work,” he lamented.

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