For nearly 700 truck-drivers who have spent between three and 15 days at the truck terminal near the Vashi wholesale markets just outside Mumbai, the first decent meal in days came on Sunday night when the terminal operator organised 50 kilos of rice, 20 kilos of lentils and 10 kilos of vegetables for a langar-style meal of khichdi. With state borders sealed and major highways open only for passage of essential goods, tens of thousands of truckers find themselves stranded at truck terminals across the country amid an unprecedented health crisis, hundreds of kilometres from home and with no idea when they may return.
At the Vashi truck terminal, Fazal Hussain of Modasa in Gujarat’s Aravalli district rues not leaving on Saturday night as soon as his truck-load of potatoes was unloaded at Vashi’s wholesale mandi. “On Sunday we observed the Janata Curfew, and now we’re stuck here with not even a tea-stall functional anywhere in the vicinity. All we want is to return home,” he says. About 60 of the waiting men are from Gujarat, their 45 trucks having just unloaded hundreds of tonnes of the tuber that is a Mumbai household staple. “There’s no value for the truck driver who brings Mumbai its food.” Some of them tried to take their empty trucks back to Gujarat on Monday but returned a couple of hours later after being refused entry to the highway.
Francis Rodrigues and Abdul Rameez from Mysore in Karnataka have been waiting much longer, about 12 days. The longest wait has been for Basavanna Nayak, who reached 15 days ago, having started at the front of 35 trucks that left Mysore with tender coconuts for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. “It takes three-four days to unload coconuts from 16-tonne trucks. We were to load up dates from the Turbhe market and return, but by then the work restrictions were in place and loader unions were advising members to stay away. We went to Turbhe but had to return here without the goods,” Nayak says. Like most others stranded at the Vashi terminal, they were hopeful that the broker would find them a return load. “But there is no maal in the markets. And now we’ve run out of luck entirely with the borders closed though we’re prepared to return home empty,” says Rameez. Sandy Kurien from Ernakulam in Kerala who drove a truckload of pineapples says perhaps the government will make arrangements for truckers to return home.
Thousands of truckers across the country are in the same plight, says Amrit Lal Madan, chairman of the western region coordination committee of the All India Motor Transport Congress, which claims to represent 90 lakh truckers. “All the truckers stuck outside the borders of their home state are in a mental state of worry and stress, and there’s no food available where they are spending nights. With 500-700 trucks at each location, their health is at stake too because they’re living in large groups,” Madan says. At the Vashi terminal, about 10 per cent of the drivers have masks. Fazal Hussain went to buy one but felt he was being overcharged by the local chemist. There is a toilet inside the lot with running water, but the truckers have been given no information about hand-washing and respiratory hygiene.
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The Karnataka drivers are habituated to buying essentials to cook their own meals. But prices went through the roof in the last week either due to the fear of shortages or because of lower arrivals of produce. “Or maybe we were simply being fleeced by those taking advantage of the situation,” says Rodrigues, who bought tomatoes at Rs 80 a kg and onion at Rs 60 a kg. “It’s unaffordable, so we’re eating as little as possible.” One driver from Kadappa in Andhra Pradesh says he wishes at least a tea-stall would be opened up at the parking lot.
To add to the uncertainty, owners of some fleets have been avoiding the drivers’ calls asking for cash to subsist in Vashi. “Transporters’ trucks are idling at different locations, most with bank EMIs of nearly Rs 50,000,” explains Madan, a large transporter himself with 115 trucks on the roads. “The government’s refusal to reduce diesel prices despite the crash in international oil prices is already galling, and now this sudden closure of borders has set transporters back further.” Small transport companies will face acute distress in coming months, and some will have to close down, he warns.
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