GST impact: Truck drivers enjoy the free run

An empty checkpoint at Lalru, in Punjab. Photo: Sahil Makkar
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

Just after midnight at Naya Bazar market, near the New Delhi railway station, labourers were trudging on a wooden plank to load Roop Mohammed’s Chandigarh-bound truck with grocery outside the office of Chamba Manali Transport Corporation. These labourers are paid Rs 10-12 for lifting each 100 kg weight. On a normal night, a group of three men load 50-60 tonnes and the earnings are divided equally.  

At one corner, Devender Kumar, an employee of the transport company, was monitoring the movement of the labourers and was sifting through bills.  Each bill, or challan, had a GSTN number and the IGST rate, varying from 5 per cent to 18 per cent, printed on it. Mohammed would need bills for each item he was to carry in his truck. The authorities might check bills to ensure traders had charged the right IGST rate and no goods were being transported without bills.

Companies like Chamba Manali Transport Corporation charge traders Rs  1-5 per kg for goods transported from one city to another. Chamba Manali Transport Corporation owns some trucks and also hires the services of people like Mohammed. Mohammed was paid Rs  7,700 for the trip to Chandigarh.

“The demand for transportation of goods has revived after a fortnight of GST implementation. Now we are dispatching more trucks,” Kumar explained while handing bills to Mohammed under a dimly-lit bulb.

Mohammed, a 42-year-old man clad in purple kurta pyjama, was in a hurry as he wanted to enter Chandigarh before 8 am. He began his journey for Chandigarh at 2.15 am.

“Two things have changed in the past 15 days. The illegal transportation of goods (without bills) has completely ended and there is hardly any queue at checkpoints,” Mohammed said keeping his eyes on the poorly-lit highway. The headlights of his truck had failed a night before  and he had not found time to repair them. On the way Mohammed had to pick up Birender Kumar, an employee of another transport company. The truck Kumar was travelling in had broken down near Ambedkar University. “All this mess is because of Modi. Business is down,” said an upset Kumar. He eased up when Mohammed said ferrying goods without bills would be resume in three months. “Officials implement orders. They are corrupt and will now ask for a bigger cut.”  Kumar got off before the Delhi-Haryana border, once a terrible bottleneck with queues of trucks running into several km. “Earlier, 70 per cent trading was without bills. Now everything is billed,” Mohammed said as he passed the Kundli check post on the Delhi-Haryana border. This check post is not used for checking sales invoices. Mohammed, who has been driving on this route since 2000, said the Haryana government did not have sales tax barriers. Instead they have blue-beaconed Boleros. Officials chase drivers in these cars. “Unlike Delhi and Punjab, officials in Haryana are difficult to bribe. They charge hefty fines as per the law,” Mohammed said. 

On Saturday, Mohammed was not stopped for verification. After three hours of driving, Mohammed crossed two toll tax collection points, at Panipat and Karnal, without any hassle. By then it was dawn and Mohammed was relieved because of the light. The truck passed lush fields, with Mohammed occasionally bowing to temples and mosques and even showing his respect to kaanwariyas (devotees of Shiva). Mohammed speaks chaste Punjabi and entertains his fellow travellers with Punjabi folk songs. He had pictures of mosques and Hindu gods in his truck.

At Ambala, he decided to take a sharp right turn towards Panchkula. “I don’t want to waste time at the Lalru checkpoint. I would rather spend an extra hour to reach Chandigarh via Panchkula,” he said. Lalru is the entry point for Punjab where authorities check trucks for documentation and bills of goods. Before the GST, drivers would sometimes spend a day before their documents were verified. The checkpoint now has barely any truck waiting for clearance.

Mohammed tried to speed up. He wanted to cover the extra distance and reach Chandigarh before 8 am. His luck with the authorities ran out as he entered Chandigarh. A man in uniform stopped him on the pretext of checking his truck and documents. Mohammed was left off within minutes. “He was from the RTO and I had to bribe him Rs  100 despite having all the documents. This is routine for all truck drivers. For us, the GST has changed nothing,” Mohammed said as he reached his destination.

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