Mumbai: On Tuesday, May 26, members of the Maharashtra chapter of All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) took teams to various district collectors and guardian ministers and submitted their memorandum, requesting the government to create a mechanism to bring drivers back. According to this umbrella body of transport associations, almost 40% of the state's transport is stalled due to lack of drivers and helpers.
"Drivers and helpers have gone to their native villages. Many of them have pressures from their families to not go to work. Some of them want to come back but have no transport services to reach their job location. This is affecting our businesses. That is why we have requested the state government to make arrangements to resolve the issue urgently," said Prakash Gavali, director of AIMTC.
Maharashtra has 24 lakh registered vehicles for transportation of goods. Right now, 85% of these vehicles are standing without work. Essential services are being provided through only 15% vehicles.
Since April 20, the state has given permissions to restart industry in green zones and non-municipal areas. Till now, only 60,000 industrial establishments have started in state. So, there is already low demand for transportation. In the midst of all this, the lack of drivers is another problem, especially in cities like Mumbai, Pune, Nasik and others.
Rajendra Phad, district chairman of the Nasik Transport Association owns 22 two trucks, but only four drivers are available right now. "The drivers have gone back their homes. Ten of my drivers are from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. But they can't come, as there are restrictions on crossing borders of districts as well as states. Some drivers are from Ahmednagar district. They too can't come. So, even if a company asks me for a truck, I can't provide them. This is the problem," he said.
Ramanush Vishwakarma from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh works as driver with Phad in Nasik. He went to his native village in the first week of May, and wanted to return to work but no transport was available. He has a family of five members to feed. He told Phad over phone that he doesn’t have any work there and wants to come back to Nasik but there are no trains or buses.
According to Phad and many others, drivers, too, are facing multiple problems, from non-availability of food on transport routes, to problems regarding boarding and lodging at the point of unloading the the trucks etc.
"As the countrywide lockdown is in place, there is no hotel, dhaba open on the roads. So, long-distance drivers are facing problems. The other issue is of staying. Drivers are not being allowed by companies or agencies to stay in their premises. So, they have to stay and sleep in trucks. These days there is not enough labour for unloading goods. So, the process is taking time, sometimes even two to three days. These are genuine issues and that's why drivers are not ready to return to work," said Phad.
Mumbai, Pune and Nasik are industrial hubs of Maharashtra. Right now all these three cities are in the red zones. Mumbai has the highest COVID-19 cases in state. So, no driver wants to go to Mumbai. Also the drivers who carry goods from Mumbai to other destinations complain that people outside the state are not cooperative. "There is fear in drivers as well as people due to the pandemic. So, the government has to work to create an atmosphere of faith on the ground," said Phad.
Balasaheb Kalshetti, the owner of Mahalakshmi Goods Transport Company in Sangli, owns 42 trucks. Most of the transport business is linked with Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru. But right now, there is no work for him. Whatever little work he gets, is local, in Sangli district.
"There is less work and there are no drivers. I am facing both difficulties. My 18 trucks are standing due to lack of drivers. Our drivers hail mainly from Solapur district. But district borders are closed," said Kalshetti. He was also part of the delegation that went to handover the memorandum to district collector.
"We are requesting the government on three major issues. First, create an atmosphere where drivers and helpers feel that they are also part of the battle against COVID-19. Aren't these important people? Aren't they carrying essential goods everywhere? At least give them basic respect," said Kalshetti.
The other two demands are to bring drivers and helpers back to their cities of work and also start services, such as hotels and dhabas in at least major industrial towns. "You have the Shiv Bhojan scheme of mid-day meal. You are giving per plate meal at Rs 5. Start such canteens in all truck terminals. This will end the tension of food among drivers," said Phad.
Sanjay Dinge, who works as a driver in Aurangabad's Ghruneshwar Transport, is from Jamkhed teshil of Ahmednagar. It is border tehsil. Dinge, too, wants to go back to work but his family has not been allowing him to do so. "My wife says that it is better to stay at home than to go into red zones. Our savings are getting over. I will have to work to look after my two daughters and wife. But what do I do? Frankly I am also scared to go," he said.
Till now, around eight lakh workers have left Maharashtra via some 600 trains. As per Gavali, almost three lakh drivers and helpers have left the state. "If state government fails to bring them back, then there will be major problems for the transport industry," he said.
During the recent meeting with Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Nationalist Congress Party Chief Sharad Pawar, too, asked the state government to work on plan to bring the labourers back. "It is very necessary to run the industries. The government will have to work on a plan which would bring the labour back from their respective states," Pawar said.
According to Satej Patil, Minister of State for Transport, the state government is working on plan to give relaxations to the transport sector. "By the end of this lockdown, the state government will declare a further plan of action regarding transportation. I have spoken to some of the members of transport associations. Their demands are right. We will work out the plan where intra-state drivers and helpers will be able to go back to their place of work," said Patil.