Are we serious about addressing driver shortage?
No, is the straightforward answer to this mission-critical question.
Neither the transport fraternity nor the central and state governments are disputing the 22% driver shortage statistics. Various palliative steps to address this $5trillion GDP dream-snapper are debated non-stop. There are suggestions to set up driver training institutes (DTI) with the necessary infrastructure in each district — 748 in 2021.
How many do exist today with the requisite infrastructure? Maybe three dozen. Lawmakers (MLAs and MPs) would love one district-one DTI format as a vote-catching slogan. Jobs, the fulcrum around which lives revolve. Jobless growth is meaningless.
On the one side, there is a huge demand for drivers, and on the other, there are millions of jobless youth spread across India. Surprising, there is no social unrest in our country so far due to scarcity of tactical or strategic thinking political leaders to galvanize the disenchanted youth — illiterate, semi-literate (school dropouts or failed students at various levels) and literate (passed out high school and graduates and post-graduates) to derive political mileage.
DTIs sprung up with Ashok Leyland topping the table with the maximum count spread across India, followed by other heavy commercial vehicle manufacturers such as Tata Motors, Mahindra, Eicher Volvo, Daimler, etc. They are authorized to impart driver skills through 100% central and state government subsidy and certify that the students trained by them are ready-for-road after the intensive government-approved curriculum. But…
But, they have no power to issue the most-sought after item: the driving license. The Licensing Authority alone is authorized for this task. This arrangement of the District Road Transport Office (RTO) as the licensing authority should not pose a challenge because the heavy-lifting of training greenhorns is passed on to others. The DTI runners, formed as joint venture operations between state governments offering the most critical land as part of its equity and the private sector undertaking training and other chores, are happy with the arrangement to a certain extent. After all, they can boast of going beyond selling trucks. They train the necessary workforce too. Corporate Social Responsibility!
The DTI-certified wannabe drivers cannot jump into a job right away without a driving license, and for this, they have to approach the RTO. The maiden challenge arises here. These license-seekers have to the RTO in the district shown on their Aadhar card and not the RTO where DTIs conducted training and certified their eligibility for obtaining a DL. By and large, most candidates have attended DTIs, not necessarily in their Aadhar-nominated district but elsewhere.
The corruption level in the transport vertical is humongous. Various studies have showcased this malady ad infinitum. Nitin Gadkari, the minister for road transport and highways, government of India, has denounced the RTO cadre for their rent-seeking nature but cannot tame the monster to date. Reason: transport, though falls in the Concurrent List of the Indian Constitution, the real power rests with states. Hence, Gadkari is a toothless tiger. Or an impotent dog: bark, no bite.
The candidates holding DTI-certificates are not “exempled” from the bribe-seeking RTO vultures. The going price or bribe to obtain a heavy commercial license anywhere in India starts at Rs.18,000. Nobody knows the upper limit. The irony of the whole game is that the wannabe driver needs no DTI certificate to get DL. You bribe, and the license is yours!
Is the DTI exercise a charade? On the surface, it may appear so. But not in reality. The DTI-certified wannabe drivers are genuinely trailed soldiers ready for the roads to roll their truck tires with people or cargo. The license-through-the-bribe route is not adequately trained and vulnerable to add to the road safety risks.
This anomaly can be removed for DTI-certified wannabe drivers, provided the states tweak their rulebook to permit the students to get their driving license at the same district where they have been trained. For instance, a DTI-certified student from Aurangabad district in Bihar and trained in Ajmer, Rajasthan, should be permitted to get his driving license at Ajmer, not Aurangabad RTO. It is doable with a simple tweaking of software configuration on the state transport department portal.
Unfortunately, the bribe-seeking DNA plays the dirty game by sticking to the hailing district licensing criteria. The political class is equally blameworthy because they, as the ruling party, fix financial targets — monthly and annually for the bureaucracy under them. Once these targets are met, the bribe collectors indulge in lining their pockets. Illegal, unpardonable, but unchecked — the ultimate sufferers are the general public, including DTI-certified wannabe driving license seekers.
Assuming this bribe monster is tamed in the foreseeable future and DTI-certified and RTO-licensed drivers are injected into the transport vertical, does it solve the 22% driver shortage challenge? Definitely, not. Why?