Cargo Theft is nothing new! Silk Roads had their share too.
Cargo loot on highways is a daily occurrence. Almost. However, a few incidents get media space, and the rest go unheard because they are unreported mostly. Besides, if they get coverage, the looting of passengers gets higher visibility vis-a-vis cargo theft. Why? Because the looted people crib and complain openly as against comparative silence of cargo theft. The media loves such dramas!
Most of the loot happens at night — the time long haul truck drivers opt to drive with twin objectives: primarily to evade the corrupt highway officials of state transport departments as they prefer to “operate” during daytime over the nocturnal vigil. Secondly, the hot tropical Indian climate coupled with poorly ventilated truck cabins makes driving extremely unbearable. Indeed, a well-thought-out decision.
Besides the corrupt or rent-seeking highway officials, state or district level rowdy elements highway gangs also operate to decamp with valuables at night. Though opting for nighttime driving from one perspective, drivers have simultaneously exposed themselves to the theft of cargo. At times, their lives were snuffed out at the hands of highway hooligans.
In the light of the e-commerce boom in India, theft of goods online-ordered is on the rise. TVS Logistics CEO India R Shankar is quoted as saying, “pilferage during the transportation is higher than during warehousing” (1)
Patrolling every inch of highways is next to impossible, given the country’s size. Yet there are highway patrol squads in some states. Highway heists go unreported because the shippers have insurance cover. It is a time-consuming process. Ask shippers and transporters/fleet owners about the difficult time they face from the time of reporting such happenings and the recovery of insurance cover. (However, local, regional dailies carry such illegal and dastardly actions in detail, but which logistics babu reads regional dailies to comprehend the complex Indian society?).
I wonder whether Sure group owner Ramrattan Singhi’s Hindustan Lever load from the north, hired by Varuna Logistics in 2017, settled the issue even today. So also don’t know the fate of Siddhi Vinayak Logistics’s load of Vedanta material that went missing in New Delhi in 2016. Brand new cars have gone missing. White goods have gone missing. All in transit.
Or the goods looted near Bijapur on their way from Sanand, Gujarat to Tiruchirapalli, Tamilnadu a few years ago of Colgate items? My decade-long truck driver friend Anil Pandeyji was waylaid, bundled, beaten up near Jamshedpur in an isolated location until he regained consciousness to seek assistance. Another driver friend lost his life while defending the tractor load he was carrying in madhya Bharat.
Recently, the Uttar Pradesh police arrested a gang for hijacking Rs.35 lakh iron rods and parking the same in an empty warehouse for final disposal once things cool down.
We live in better times where cargo, vehicle, or driver safety should not be a challenge. Remote monitoring of moving vehicles second-by-second is no longer a luxury.
But what was the scene in the Silk Road era? Were there bandits on the 6,000–7,000 km stretch from China to the European border used for over 2,000 years between the first century BC and the 19th century AD? Was there corruption on highways? If yes, who were the actors or looters? What about tolls and other taxes?
Hold your breath. History vouchsafes such happenings. Bruce James, a history buff, quotes the famous seventh-century Chinese traveler and Buddhist scholar Xuanzang (602–664 AD). “Near Dunhuang, the Silk Road split in two to skirt the rim of the Taklamakan Desert. The roads met again 1,400 miles west at Kashgar. But between these two oases lay the Silk Road’s most dangerous terrain. Among the threats were starvation, thirst, bandits, and ferocious sandstorms are known to bury entire caravans.” Bandits and robbers were a constant threat on the Silk Road. Xuanzang mentions several encounters with bandits. (2)
James elaborates on the logistical nightmare of traveling the Silk Road. “The Silk Road goes through some of the most challenging terrains in vast deserts and high and rugged mountain ranges. The terrain, the weather, and many other risks resulted in higher transit costs. Bandits and robbers certainly added to the risk. But several systems were in place to reduce the risk.
However, few people ever traveled the full length of the Silk Road. A series of routes and agents transported the goods. This mode meant that local agents, familiar with terrain, politics, and bandits of their region, who were better suited for the task, would ensure safe transit.
Ladakh was a key transit point or entrepot on the famed Silk Road. A tough terrain. According to Jacqueline Fewkes, a research scholar in her book, Trade and Contemporary Society Along The Silk Road, says:
“The shipment of goods from South Asia to Central Asia (or vice versa) was a long process that involved a number of transporters, which resulted in high transit costs. Whether the transporters were local villagers in the role of kiraiyakash or professional long-distance porters such as the caravan men in Rasool Galwan’s autobiography, the transporters of goods through Ladakh had to be well informed concerning regional conditions and familiar with the terrain. Landslides, sudden snowstorms, and bandits were just a few of the hazards faced by those transporting goods through Ladakh.”
Trade, turmoil, and turbulence go hand in hand on the sea or roads. Traders naturally sought protection to ensure safe passage. Despite dangers, luckily, they had good partners en route, and their selection of routes depended on “the political stability of the regional power. Centralized states, confederations, and regional powers promoted trade and diplomacy. They invested in communications and economic infrastructure such as secure roads, water depots, inns…” (3)
In Managing Supply Chains on the Silk Roads: Strategy, Performance and Risk, Editors Cagri Haksoz, Sridhar Seshadri, and Ananth Iyer capture the risk mitigation tactics of merchants on the Silk Road. “Defense against banditry took place at a private and institutional level. Caravans of goods needed their guards against plundering by the bandits (i.e., for security risk), which was an added cost for the merchants making the trip. The institutional level had three forms: The Chinese garrisons and watchtowers beyond the Great Wall, Mongolian postal stations, and caravanserais in the Middle East and Anatolia. These institutions provided safety, supplies, and lodgings for merchants. Besides, the Chinese soldiers informed about incidents using smoke and flag signals in real-time.”
Adds the Silk Road in World History: “Islamic patrons built hostels, known as caravanserai, that accommodated both people and beasts of burden. In addition, the Seljuk Turks, who controlled the western part of the Silk Road, offered the traders a special guarantee of safety. The government assured their financial security by paying compensation out of the state treasury for any loss caused by robbery.”
Niels Steensgaard, professor of history at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, wrote thus in his Carracks, Caravans, and Companies which subsequently was released under the title of The Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century:
“Travel reports provide economic details illuminating risks, safety as well as costs of various routes from China and India. For example, caravans paid premiums when traveling safer roads, such as the Isfahan-Gombroon-Surat route, which saw higher tax rates than the riskier Isfahan-Kandahar-Lahore route.”
Historians allude to the emergence of the sea route from Britain and Europe to the far east, China, India, and Indonesia in particular as the main reason for the demise of the caravan style trade movement.
Routes changed over the year according to local conditions; at any given time, any portion of the network might be struck by war, robbers, or natural disaster. The northern routes were intermittently plagued or protected by nomadic horsemen. The southern routes were endangered by fearsome desert and frozen mountain passes.
However, China changed the scenario by opening up the routes crossing Tienshan and Pamir for official international trade through its military expeditions to Central Asia in the late second century BC. Thus the two semi-continental routes merged into one observes Gumppenberg and Steinbach. (3)
Silk Roads expired upon European/Russian conquest and colonization of large parts of Central Asia and their transformation into a peripheral component of the modern industrial world economy.