Time Stands Still @ Baddi
It was a ‘whirlwind visit,’ so to say. We allocated 36 hours to visit Baddi, an important transport hub in the northern belt, but luckily it ended in less than four hours, courtesy of the transport association officials under a single roof at the Baddi Union office on an early October Friday morning.
For Freight Tiger Sakshi Hingorani and Madhusudhan Nair, it was the maiden trip to this transport dugout at the foothills of the Himalayas. I had been regularly hot-footing to Baddi since 2014. But, of course, Covid prevented any excursion past two years.
The Sakshi-Madhu duo, representing the Mumbai-based start-up, embarked on transforming the transport ecosystem to improve operational efficiency and simultaneously slashing the logistic cost. They were on an exploratory visit to “sound” the 15,000-strong fleet community about their “service solutions” and elicit their feedback.
The General Secretary’s airconditioned office meeting, perched above the vast auctioning hall, was educative and informative. Of course, when the audience is mixed with seniors and juniors from the trade, the approach towards any technology solution is bound to be equally “mixed.” However, surprisingly, the senior office bearers displayed no technophobia or tech antipathy.
“Ask any specific input about our truck movement, you can have it in the next few minutes. Our technology is so robust,” asserts vice president. It ought to be given the shippers from the erstwhile tax-shelter that enticed the biggest companies in India to set up manufacturing facilities in Baddi in the early 2000s readily coughing freight rate fixed by the Association. There are no bids for hiring transportation to move goods out of their factory premises. The Association fixes, and shippers “oblige.” Naturally, the delivery has to be safe and time-bound, and the role of technology to track and trace trucks assumes importance.
Association claims almost 80% of fleet controlled by them are GPS-enabled. “It is wrong to say truckers are unfriendly with technology,” asserts a driver scanning the notice board outside the auction hall about his allotment of load.
Every two hours, drivers loitering around the Association premises sipping chai, smoking bidi or cigarette, or chewing tambaku (processed tobacco) assemble in the auction hall to hear the allotment announcement. The drivers have the right to refuse the load to the destination pronounced and wait for their next turn. Once the load is accepted, the allotted truck has to reach the shippers’ premises.
“There is no question of queue jumping or priority allotment. Whether it is President’s truck or anybody’s, the algorithm decides. So, no one can complain about favortism,” adds another.
The younger lot of fleet owners or drivers are aware of the likes of Rivigo and Blackbuck — whom the Association views as “rivals.” The migration to these start-ups is negligible. The reason is simple: you wait your turn, and the freight you will realize is enormous because it is not market-driven but Association-determined. Companies operating in Baddi are disallowed to access transportation from outside. Cartelisation, yes it is. Despite noises from the local industry lobby, nothing has changed for decades. Such is the clout of transporters of Baddi in the corridors of power that matters. Violent tactics are allegedly deployed to drive away business threats, if any, to the Association’s existence.
The Association officials justify their higher tariff citing total cargo safety. “We guarantee safe and timely delivery,” adds a transporter. “Can you provide that safety net?” they ask. According to them, start-ups in the transport ecosystem have sprung up to provide no cargo safety nor payment surety. “They are mere marketplace platforms with profit motive, not service-oriented,” says one of the Association honchos.
Is the Association hyping cargo safety? On the ground, when cargo hijacks happen on highways, the procedure is simple: go to the nearest police station, file an FIR and hand over the same to the shipper, who in turn will claim insurance. Association or no Association, this routine cannot be altered. But, of course, there is one big challenge, viz., the filing of FIR. Police stations anywhere in India will play dirty and refuse to entertain a complaint from truck drivers, despite the Zero FIR provision because they nurse the notion that drivers have “stage-managed” the heist with an ulterior motive. Associations through their network can speed up this process, not short-circuit. Beyond that, there is a minimal notion of cargo safety on highways. On the ground, drivers have to fend for themselves.
Association officials claim that each vehicle fetches Rs.300 a month as a fee to get load: one or as many as the system may allot. Vehicle owners must register at the Association booking office to include their vehicles in the master load waiting list awaiting the algorithm to decide. The Association earns approximately Rs.450,000 every month via the registration fee. A cool Rs.5–6 crore per annum. Significantly, officials draw no remuneration but claim to be providing voluntary work. Tough to believe, no doubt.
The younger lot — drivers or owner-drivers — are eager to explore fresh avenues to improve their modus operandi. How far start-ups like Rivigo and Blackbuck have succeeded in embracing the Baddi transport fraternity is anyone’s guess. But, it will be no surprise if they were experimenting with those outfits for their return load from wherever back to Baddi for fresh loads at Association rates.
Everything is hunky-dory at Baddi. Ex-Baddi freight rates are unthinkable, benefitting transporters immensely much to the discomfiture of manufacturing units there. Perhaps this “unique” situation has led to the growth of Zirakpur in neighboring Punjab, which turned into a vast warehousing hub. It is generally believed that many Baddi-manufactured goods move into Zirkarpur warehouses — less than 100 km — paying the Association-dictated rates and subsequently moving to any part of India at market-driven rates. However, it does not mean that Baddi Association-controlled vehicles do not go on long hauls.
How long will the existing Baddi model continue? Nobody knows. As of now, there are no murmurs in this Himalayan foothill transport dugout. So far, so good. Time stands still at Baddi. Even the Himalayan snow melts.