Port Wings News Bureau:
The road freight transport segment is at critical juncture now and the new government at the Centre led by Mr Narendra Modi should take concerted efforts without any delay to keep alive the fragmented sector, which had been badly let down by the previous UPA regime, Mr R Sugumar, former spokesperson & member of All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) and president of Tamil Nadu Lorry Owners Federation, has said.
In an exclusive interview to Port Wings, Mr Sugumar, a well-known face in the road freight transport sector spoke about the status of road freight transporters, scarcity of trained drivers, lack of security for truck drivers on highways and perennial hindrances for freight vehicles on road.
Excerpts of the interview…
Q. Tell us about the present condition of road freight transport segment?
Mr Sugumar: “There is nothing much to cheer about the sector, which is considered to be the backbone of Indian economy. Barring a few big players, the entire road freight transport segment is in doldrums. Small players with few trucks are falling prey to the ever increasing cost of capital expenditure and moving out of the field with heavy losses. That’s why, we are for a secured industry status for the unorganized segment.”
Q. What has been ailing the road transport sector?
RS: “There are several factors ailing the system for the last few years. Starting from inept bureaucracy to burgeoning cost of parts for trucks, the whole chain has literally bogged down the entire segment. In the last three years alone, cost of diesel (fuel for trucks) and tyres has increased astronomically. Besides, insurance cost also increased over 50 percent. On the other hand, freight charges have remained stagnant and it has eroded the meager profit margins for the transporters.”
Q. How the Government could lend a helping hand to the transporters to come out of the crisis?
RS: “Whenever the agricultural sector, said to be the backbone of economy, suffers either due to natural calamity or any other factor, both the Centre and state governments quickly intervene and support the sector with incentives. Likewise, road freight transport sector is also forms the backbone of Indian economy. Hence, the governments should take initiatives to analyze the trends in the sector and extend support for rejuvenation of fragile sector.”
Q. Every now and then, we hear about the shortage of trained drivers. What is the real picture now?
RS: “There are three dimensions to the issue of shortage of trained drivers for freight trucks. First of all, it is true that the sector is facing acute shortage of trained drivers. One of the primary factors for the shortage is the stringent clause of minimum qualification of 8th standard for granting driving licence. Due to the condition, many aspirants, who had enough knowledge to read, write and understand signboards on highways but does not have the 8th pass certificate, are unable to get the licence. If the government relaxes the clause, it could help entry of more hands behind steering. The second fact which forces many drivers to skip freight transport on highways is lack of security. Besides, harassment at the hands of RTO and Police checkposts on highways also dissuades drivers to opt for long distance road cargo movement.”
Q. You spoke about the lack of security for drivers on highways. Kindly elaborate it?
RS: “Highway Robbery was relatively an unknown term in India until late 1990s.With the exponential growth of road freight movement in mid-90s, highway robbers also set their fiefdom along remote highways. In the last two years alone, we have data that about 24 drivers were brutally murdered and their vehicles were hijacked along with goods. According to inputs, an area between Maharashtra and Karnataka border where most of the highway robberies were recorded.”
Q. What is the solution you are suggesting to eliminate highway robberies in future?
RS: “The state and centre should form a special task force in coordination with police department and increase regular patrolling along the deserted highways to deter robbers from set in their foothold along those roads. If the government is able to keep the highways free of robbers, it could help us to persuade more and more drivers to take up the long distance road freight transport service.”
Q: There are reports that more than 2000 container trailer lorries from Chennai alone were seized by financial companies due to defaults in the last two years. What happened to the trailer trade?
RS: “Due to shortage of drivers and regular congestion in Chennai Port, most of the trailer owners in Chennai are unable to earn even for paying their monthly installments for (their) vehicles. The slump in revenue has badly affected their fortunes. As a cascading effect, they were unable to settle vehicle dues on time and it culminated in seizures (of vehicle) by various financial companies. Until unless both the issues—availability of drivers and seamless movement of containers to and from port are solved, the future of trailer owners is uncertain.”
Q. What is your suggestion to end driver’ scarcity?
RS: “The road freight transport is a fragmented industry. It should be given a secured Industry status. Besides, the government should come out with a permanent employment scheme for drivers in the transport sector, as it could help more drivers to opt for long distance road freight transport.”
Q: What is your expectation from the NDA government led by Mr Narendra Modi?
RS: “During the previous NDA regime, they developed several highways and created an ideal environment for hassle-free road-freight movement across the country. They even had a crystal clear policy for roads and even for tolls. However, the successive UPA regime changed everything in favour of their whims and fancies, which ultimately led to nepotism and corruption. However, after change of guard at the Centre, our hopes are high. But nothing much has changed even in the Modi govt. But we are hoping for a change of attitude from Centre.”