Sixty-something Laxman Pawar has been running a transport business for nearly three decades now. He has seen quite a few ups and downs during this time, but nothing like what he has experienced in the last couple of months. Business was near zero in April and while things have somewhat improved since then, barely a dozen trucks in the 46-strong fleet of his NL Pawar Transport Service are plying at present.
“My biggest problem right now is the shortage of drivers,” he told CNBC-TV18. “Almost 80 percent of them have returned to their home towns. In April, we had drivers but no business and now we have some business but not enough drivers,” he said.
Some of Pawar’s customers are from the pharma sector, which falls under the essential services.
“There were orders to transport sanitisers and medicines, but I had to turn down some of them," he said.
Across the country, transporters are estimated to have lost around Rs 50,000 crore of revenues since the lockdown began in the last week of March.
CNBC-TV18 travelled to the Vashi truck terminal in Navi Mumbai, where a majority of transporters park their trucks and tankers as they wait for the next trip. There was hardly any activity; most trucks were idle, drivers were playing cards and parking attendants were chatting away on the phone.
Pawar’s family also happens to run a thriving fruits and vegetables business. “I still have something to fall back on, even if the transport business gets more difficult,” he said.
But many others do not have that luxury.
"We are not able to manage the shortage of drivers and cleaners,” says Amardeep Singh, another transporter.
“We have had no work for the last 3 months and there are loan instalments to be paid. We cannot afford the EMIs of the trucks we own, buying new ones or expanding will be out of question for the next few years. It will take time for us to recover the losses and get back to where we were,” he says.
With drivers in short supply, transporters are having to pay extra to get them behind the wheel. Drivers are paid a fixed monthly salary and an on-road allowance. Transporters have now increased the monthly salary by 20 percent and the daily allowances by Rs 400-700.
“We don’t have a choice, if we don’t pay more, the drivers will go over to our competitors because demand for their services is high,” Pawar said, adding that many transporters were working at close to zero margins.
Making matters worse for transporters is the steady rise in diesel prices lately.
“On one hand, drivers are demanding higher salaries, and on the other, clients are asking for lower rates,” he said.
And while some transporters were willing to pay their drivers more money, the drivers refused to stay and chose to head for their native towns.
No easy life
Drivers have their own stories to tell. Ashok Yadav, a native of Varanasi, who migrated to Mumbai 15 years ago, says the last couple of months on the road have been very tough.
“There were no provisions for food and water along the way because of the lockdown. Inter-state trips were all the more difficult because of harassment by the local authorities,” Yadav said.
“Despite the government having made it clear that trucks should be allowed to ply, many of us have been roughed up by cops,” Yadav said.
As for drivers demanding and getting higher salaries, Yadav said that transporters don’t always pay what they promise to.
In many cases, the transporters were forced to renege on their promise.
“Even when we get orders for delivering goods, the clients don’t pay us on time,” said Charu Singh, a transporter.
“I can’t blame them because they too are facing cash issues of their own. Every industry has been hit, and people are trying to manage in whatever way they can,” he said.
Yadav is keen to return to his home town.
“You can’t survive in this city on an erratic income. The rent itself is quite high. Maybe I will find something in my home town,” he said.