“When people from villages go to work in cities, they have at least a couple of people to help them. Here on the highway, no one knows me,” says Kanhaiya Singh as, lying on the front seat of his truck, he tries to tune into his mobile radio for news updates.
Transporting 40 motorcycles, the 40-year-old and his driver Harpreet Singh had covered over 700 km from Bengaluru and were just 85 km short of their destination Pune when the country went into lockdown. Kanhaiya has been parked since at a desolate ‘Om Pancharatna Dhaba’ in Wai, near Satara.
Though the Centre has said that trucks transporting goods should be allowed through state and district borders, across highways in Maharashtra, stranded truckers are now parked in dhabas like Kanhaiya or at petrol pumps. Their rations are running out, and with many dhabas shut, so is food.
Also Read | Centre’s cue: States want longer lockdown
Police patrols shoo them away from tolls, or tell them to turn around. “Even when an order has been issued to allow essential services, the understanding on the ground is to only give priority to essential items. Those returning after offloading their goods are being stopped on return journey,” says Bal Malkit Singh, the Chairman of the All India Motor Transport Congress.
While many have abandoned their trucks and left, those like Kanhaiya, afraid of leaving their cargo unattended, pass days counting their money, and surfing phones for news.
Five of them have now been parked since at least a fortnight at Suchar Singh’s dhaba, on Turjapur Road in Osmanabad district. Many others have left their trucks behind in Suchar’s care, putting their phone numbers down on a piece of paper, and their truck papers and details of their consignments in a dusty folder. The 60-year-old’s joint is a favourite with truckers, its “special Punjabi khana” drawing up to a hundred customers every night.
Rana Pratap, among the five drivers living at the dhaba, says every time he has tried to make his way out, police have forced him back. He was carrying cotton from Raipur to Kolhapur when he got stuck on Janata Curfew day on March 22.
Asking why the government had not arranged shelters for them, the 35-year old who has been driving trucks for 11 years says, “We will die of hunger on the road.”
Bal Malkit says the All India Motor Transport Congress had asked the state government to tie up with districts to arrange food for the truckers, but not heard back. “We are making efforts but cannot reach out to all the drivers stuck in remote districts,” he says.
Abhishek Gupta, the Joint Secretary of the All India Transporters’ Welfare Association, says only 10% of trucks with national permits are on the roads currently. Of the 95 lakh-odd trucks registered at Regional Transport Offices across the country, around 13 lakh have national permit. “We have managed to gather GPS data on 70,000 trucks with national permits, of which only 6,500 are moving. All others are either abandoned or stuck,” Gupta says.
He adds that the association is mapping the toll plazas where the National Highways Authority of India has started distributing food, and communicating this to stranded truck drivers across India.
Transport Minister Anil Parab says the state government has issued a notification to let all the trucks move, both with essentials and non-essentials. “Several trucks stuck near tolls have also been cleared. If there are other trucks still stuck, I’ll instruct the DG, Highways, to ensure smooth passage,” he said.
Back at the Wai dhaba, Harpreet and Kanhaiya say they mostly cook on their own, to save money, though sometimes the staff at the restaurant share their meagre meals of daal and rice. The joint has been shut now for 17 days.
Harpeet, 32, worries about the wheat ready for harvest at their village in Mathura. “There are no workers now and I cannot help my family,” he says.
Kanhaiya says he has been calling up the owner of the showroom to whom they were to deliver the bikes, asking him to send someone with essential supplies, but to no avail.
Gupta says the fact that many warehouses where deliveries are headed are shut due to the lockdown has also left the truckers stranded.
About 15 km ahead of Wai, on the same highway, Baba Punjabi Dhaba in Nathane is also home to five truckers, including Manbeer Yadav. The 35-year old container truck driver left Delhi on March 18 with nothing but a steel glass that he uses to drink water, headed for Kolhapur. “We would have died of hunger if not for this dhaba,” says Yadav.
His bigger concern are his wife and two children, back in Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh. Yadav says his wife has been forced to ask villagers for milk to feed their one-year-old. After repeated calls, his employer transferred Rs 1,000 into Yadav’s account as allowance for five days, though he has been stuck for nearly 18 days. “I’m trying to figure out a way to send this money home,” says Yadav, managing a smile.
Stuck with him is Mayank Sharma, 42, whose daughter’s wedding scheduled for May 1 now stands cancelled. He can’t abandon his consignment of newly made glass bottles headed from Firozabad to Goa, he says. While Sharma claims that he is staying back to honour Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s “aagya (call)” regarding the lockdown, he adds, “I have told people at home that I am staying at a hotel.”
Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines