GST impact: A breakdown, some rain and many dhabas

Truck drivers Nagendra (left) and Shashikant in front of a dhaba along the highway to Rajasthan. Photo: N Sundaresha Subramanian
Two weeks into the new tax regime, Business Standard reporters hitchhike on goods-laden trucks plying on important highways from Delhi to gauge the mood of drivers and verify various claims first-hand

Raghu, a 30-something from Bihar’s Hajipur, is in the driver’s seat as the journey begins close to midnight from the Punjabi Bagh Transport Centre in the national capital. The truck, a BharatBenz with digital control panel and the works, is headed to Mumbai.

Raghu steps on the gas and asks why this reporter wanted to travel along. “It is to figure out whether the goods and services tax (GST) has actually changed the journey time and life for trucking business,” he’s told. In many ways, Raghu is the story.

What can GST do?

He talks about the “mandhi” (slowdown) in business over the past two weeks and how he got detained in Mumbai for want of loads. Raghu is concentrating as an 18-wheeler tries to overtake from the left lane. Navigating through the night traffic, he asks, “What can the GST do to drivers like us?”

He didn’t study beyond eighth and found a job as a cleaner. Most drivers are initiated as cleaners assisting drivers on trips. Drivers allow them to take the wheels on safe stretches initially and over time use them as regulars to catch some sleep on long trips. Raghu, who earns around Rs 7,500 a month, came up through the same informal system and started driving all the way in 2008. Marriage followed and then two sons. He’s mindful of his city counterparts, making much more but he enjoys the highway thrill. Also, he makes extra bucks while on the trips.      

While there’s no answer yet on how the GST can change his life, Dharuhela is here.

Everyone stops here

Dharuhela is the favourite pit stop for most drivers leaving Delhi. It is a fuelling centre, service centre, watering hole and entertainment destination all rolled into one. “We will catch some sleep and leave at sunrise,” Raghu announces with sufficient warning about robbers who can cut glass to steal things. Hum of mosquitoes triggers a search for Odomos.

Raghu’s journey ends abruptly as next morning he realises that the leaking engine oil has formed a puddle below and Panditji, his supervisor at Dharuhela, pulls him out. It’s repair time.

Farooq and Nagendra are driving two other Mumbai-bound vehicles. Farooq’s is an Eicher, but its cabin is too small for two people.  Nagender has Shashikant, a soft-spoken young man for assistance. But, three’s not a crowd for the Tata truck’s large driver’s cabin.

Short of sleep, the big seat cum bed is an invitation of sorts.

The truck company has decided to move to the Fastag system from July 1. A collaboration between ICICI Bank and National Payments Corporation of India, Fastag enables cashless toll collection. Panditji pastes the rectangular strip on the windscreens. It’s half past seven in the morning, and the truck hits the road. Nagendra offers bread pakoras to break ice. But having covered less than 100 km in some eight hours, pakoras fail to please.

Corrupt RTOs

Nagendra is in no hurry, stopping at every dhaba on the way. After passing Rewari, just before the Rajasthan border, he pulls out the fan to repair it at a highway shop.  A chat with Shisha Ram, an elderly man, who is running one of the half a dozen shops selling truckers’ things ensues. He also complains of the slowdown and wants to know what GST would do to guys like him. Once over a flyover, a white jeep was seen parked perpendicular to the highway. Shashikant points out that RTO people are here. Men in white and khaki, some with sticks, emerge. Nagendra slows down and hands over something to the man in khaki. It’s a ‘’sau’’ (Rs 100 note). Before others can chase him, Nagendra presses the pedal. RTOs and tolls are the biggest troubles, he says, adding that a post set up by RTO near Udaipur can take up the whole night, sometimes with vehicles queuing up for kilometres. RTOs check  vehicles and overloading. They can also challan drivers for double diesel tanks for a few thousand rupees. Another common issue is that of cleaners without licence caught driving. Typically, drivers pay anywhere between Rs 50 and Rs 200 for easy passage. Nagendra and Shashikant would pay off RTO staff at five places in Rajasthan. At one, they would even get away with paying just Rs 40.

Trucks and pit stops

It’s the NH8 stretch, described by some as the truck capital of the country. As it went from a single to double to six-lane highway, traffic has only kept outgrowing it. Trucks of all hues and sizes ply on it… A red cabin trailer carrying a full metro coach for Hyundai Glovis maneuvers the ghat section between Udaipur and Kherwara.

By 10.30 am, it’s time to pull up at Shri Balaji Pavithra Bhojanalay, between Kotputli and Paota. Apart from numerous trucks, the Paoto dhaba has about a dozen motor cycles parked in a line. “Those belong to drivers,” says Shashikant. “Many drivers have their families in nearby villages. They park the truck in ‘Balaji’ and take their bikes to visit their families.”

The truck with all its consignments waits for its driver to return. It could be a few hours, it could be a night. It could be two, with or without GST.

Farooq, who started along, called to say he was already in Jaipur.

Heating tyres and highway magic

It’s past noon and Jaipur is still about a hundred km away from Nagendra’s truck.  He’s  worried about his tyres heating up and prefers to stop at the dhabas, many of which have ‘’sharab peena mana hai’’ boards. While alcohol is available in plenty, even sex workers are not far off, point out people in the know.  

Nagendra lives with his wife, three children, cows and two dogs at a village near Bhilwara. His “Seth” has allowed him to break journey there on both directions.  “We need a rain,” he says. While waiting for tea after taking a left turn on the Kishangarh bypass, the first drop of rain touches the face. A sandstorm follows.

Praveen Kumar Sharma, who’s making tea, says GST has hit the marble business in the area,  reducing the number of buyers at his shop too. Without the marble loading, there are hardly any trucks on roads. And without the trucks, Sharma and his neighbours who sell liquor are bearing the brunt. Liquor shop sales are down from Rs 35,000-40,000 to Rs 13,000-14,000. Driving through the rain for a couple of hours, Nagendra would pull into his village around 10 at night and most inhabitants are asleep. At his house with a large courtyard, his family eagerly awaits his arrival. GST can wait. It is time for celebrations.  

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel