Tata Motors Achal Paliwal bowled me over at the recently held Automotive Logistics Conclave by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (SIAM) with these opening remarks:
“Do you know now drivers are called drive bhai!”
Indeed, it was sweet music for my ears. Return of respectability to truck drivers?
Mark my words: “Return of respectability.” Am I declaring that drivers were respected once?
Of course. Don’t believe it? Ask Chennai-based Driver-turned-motor malik of Janta Roadways Sardar Rajendra Singh Bhasin, a well-known name in the car carrier vertical. Or buttonhole Ashok Dhingra of DGFC, another giant in the same segment, based out of the National Capital Region (NCR). Another driver metamorphosized into a massive fleet owner.
They will tell you reams and reams of the bonhomie that existed in the pre-toll or pre-national highway era. Or even before, greedy politicians usurped the policing of roads in their respective states from home departments to the transport departments and fixed a monthly target to be milked from the plying commercial vehicles.
Until then, Bhasin saab and Dhingraji were on top of the world. They gave bakshis (gifts) to the police officers on the highways. Yes, drivers gifted joyfully to the law-enforcing sepoys on highways. Out of affection. Bonhomie? You can say that. No extortion. No hooliganism or rowdy behavior. Kya zamana tha! There was mutual respect too.
On the Valentine’s Day 2011 cool morning, Ramesh Beniwal, fleet supervisor, regaled me with those days when there was perfect harmony between drivers and law enforcement agencies. “Are you sure you are not exaggerating?” I repeatedly asked him at the Jamshedpur Truck Parking area while waiting for the long truck ride to Ludhiana with Tata Steel coil load with Anil Pandeyji and Pervez Khan as driver pair. “Maano, no maano, that was the reality. Yes, it is difficult to believe such a scenario now,” responded the Haryanvi driver manager at Credence Logistics.
Dhruti Sundar Patra, a middle-aged logistician with a stint with DHL Smart Trucking, opines that the ambiance is changing. “… the time is not very far that drivers are going to be well recognized and well behaved as the awareness amongst the driver’s community is now growing and they started appreciating their work with dignity.”
Patra is spot on. A few bad or rotten apple is spoiling the image of the driver community per se. “Don’t generalize,” beseeches Vetrivelan, a truck driver near Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, and adds, “We are as law-abiding as you and others. Truck driving is like any other profession. Why do you look down upon us? Is it because we are not as best dressed as you? Why this indifference (towards us)?” Speechless, I was.
Forget about the indifference of white-collar folks. Even the security guards at factory gates treat truck drivers shabbily. “Is it because they are wearing uniform, shoe, cap and clean-shaven?” is a common complaint I hear from the drivers’ fraternity. Occasionally, they remind me that they (drivers) earn several times more than the security guards. Still, that “I-am-bigger-than-you” attitude. It is an irritant and avoidable. Drivers brush aside such ill-mannered gatekeepers and seldom complain to the logistics heads of companies they serve. High level of tolerance to accept lack of respectability.
No doubt, drivers care two hoots about their personality development. Wrong approach, I tell them. They dress shabbily, with unkempt hair and an untrimmed beard. Bathroom footwear. Lungi or half trousers. Unpressed khaki uniforms. Unbuttoned shirts reveal their unwashed banians (innerwear). Such appearance automatically puts others off. Achche dikne mein bura kya hai? (Why not dress well?) is a more than decade-long campaign slogan of mine among the truck driving fraternity. Has it had any impact? Yes and no.
Anil Pandeyji stunned me in his safari suit on February 14, 2011, evening before climbing into the driver cabin at Jamshedpur. The same is the case with Mohammed Ghouse, the owner-driver I accompanied as conductor from Bengaluru to Mangalore in 2011 with Sakthi masala load. He drove wearing a sleeveless banian tucked inside his pants.
Behind him, a spotless white full-sleeve shirt hung on the hangar. Whenever highway authorities halted him en route for some verification, he would step down wearing his white shirt, conduct business and return untrammeled. His logic was simple, rightly so. The highway vultures handle decently dressed drivers with skill or finesse. No rough handling. “The dress conveys some positive meaning to them,” reasons the clean-shaven Ghouse.
Questions such as “what has better dressing sense got to do with respectability?” do not stump me. I bat like Sachin Tendulkar. Occasionally, I hit a six. On a visit to Kolkata in 2013, I harp on the “achche dikne” theme to the assembled drivers at a parking yard. An hour later, at another location a few kilometres away from the previous one, one driver waves at me. I could not recognize him. Finally, he catches up with me to say: “Aap muje pehchaana nahi? Earlier you told us to look smart. I liked that. So I went to the saloon and got my hair cropped and shaved. How I do look now, Sirji?” Well, it was not a solitary case.
A better dressed person’s self-esteem and confidence level goes up. You look better. You feel better. Better dressed drivers get better treatment not only from the traffic police and roaming motor vehicle inspectors on highways, even security guards are on “guard” in their dealing with truck drivers.
Unfortunately, social stigma is attached to the truck driving community particularly. “Are you married?” During a recent meeting, I asked a young truck driver in the trucking hub at Manesar. He laughs and asks, “Can you find one for me? … Getting a girl for a truck driver is difficult,” he says. The pain in his voice is apparent. Parents are hesitant to betroth their daughters to truck drivers. Reasons galore, including their nomadic lifestyle.
Buttonhole a driver in a trucking dhaba and ask any of them what their profession is. None would say he is a driver. Self-contempt and low self-esteem. Why? Not a decent career? Does he know that he is an essential element for our survival? He does not. If he does, he is unaware of his potential to hit hard at the society that mocks him. Remember the Covid19 and the lockdown era with the entire world confined to four walls of its home and depending on the mercy of the transport fraternity that ensured we had our food, medicine, and whatnot!
Truly, he is an unsung hero. Garv se kaho, hum driver hai! I coax them at regular interactions. Honestly, I failed to lift their spirits. However, things are changing in a positive direction. A decade ago, few voices spoke of drivers’ taqleef. There was no recognition of their contribution. There were no celebrations. Today, the situation is different. More driver day celebrations. They are honored. Their contribution was recognized. Of course, in small measure. The world is waking up to acknowledge their contribution to the society. In small measures, no doubt.
Something is better than nothing. Himmat mat chodo, driver bhai! Security guards will treat you better in the near future, for starters. Roads got better. Trucks got better. It is just a question of time before you are treated better. Give rest and take respect. You do. They don’t. Patience. Waqt ayega! Desh badal raha hai!