A unique social venture, launched by a former journalist and backed by Mahindra & Mahindra, works for the education of daughters of Indian truck drivers. Ramesh Kumar reports
Life is like that. "Living in high-rise complexes in Urban India, we will never know the challenges, long-haul truck drivers faced on a daily basis. There's a total disconnect," confesses Koral Dasgupta over phone, herself a fifth floor resident of Mumbai suburb.
What does she have to do with truck drivers? 36-year old, multiliinguist with a proclivity towards creative writing, marketing and communication and a start up promoter, she set sail under the umbrella of tellmeyourstory.in.
As a business venture, she managed to bag permission from Mahindra Truck & Bus to collate the stories of long-haul truck drivers as narrated by their school-going daughters across India. These go onto her website, and post-polishing, will be turned into a bilingual (English and Hindi) book format in the near future. Royalties will, you've guessed it right, go towards the education of daughters of truck drivers.
Believe it or not, our entire lives hinge on the ubiquitous truck drivers. They are the backbone of our country. Want proof? Imagine if drivers strike work for two - three days and keep their trucks off the road. The result? Markets will run empty as the supply of essentials from medicines to groceries and vegetables dry up.
Though Mahatma Gandhi championed self-reliance at the village level, rightly or wrongly, production is concentrated at select centres. But consumption is spread right across the country. Hence, apart from foodgrains and vegetables, manufactured goods have to be carted to nooks and corner of India. A mammoth logistics exercise.
Govertnment data reveals that road transport handles two-thirds of all cargo movement. Prof Raghuram of Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, pegs the number of commercial vehicles plying on Indian highways at 2.5 million. Not a small number. Vehicles, however sophisticated, are meaningless without the men behind the wheels. Autonomous trucks are in beta stage even in matured economies.
The living and working conditions of Indian truck drivers is pathetic. Less educated and with no previous training, they take to driving as a career. Hobson's choice. It is astouding that the lives of 1.2 billion Indians hinges upon these unskilled, underprivileged but dedicated fellows. The less said about their safety awareness and concern, the better.
As an initiative towards their welfare, Mahindra & Mahindra has taken up the task of bringing change to the much neglected road transport ecosystem. Rightly, it has identified truck drivers, considered as backbone of the economy, to uplift them in whatever way possible.
Back in 2013, the automotive major established the Mahindra Transport Excellence Award to reward drivers from the unorganised road transport segment - particulalry in the heavy commercial vehicle segment. Significantly, the ministry of road transport & highways (MoRT&H) has been part of this drive since inception.
Every year, potential candidates under various categories are put together by Ernst & Young and then an external jury interacts with the shortlisted candidates regionwise. After this, a grand jury, consisting of MoRT&H officials and others select winners in each category. Prizes and trophies are given away in February - March at a function in Delhi attended by the road transport minister.
Significantly, the chosen best driver walks away with a brand new, Mahindra truck free of cost.
By the way, Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra happens to be the 'brand ambassador for road safety', appointed by government of India.
That's where Koral Dasgupta segues into the scene by essaying a role for the daughters of truck drivers. Since June, she and her team have vetted over 1,300 submissions in 8-9 languages from these daughters right across India, who talk about their fathers' plight while on highways. These are not concocted cock-and-bull stories, but real-life experiences. Safety is the core theme, of course.
These daughters, aspiring to become doctors, nurses, engineers, bureaucrats, etc, pour their heart out. "Eyes well up, certainly when you read their stories," admits Dasgupta. For instance, the daughter of a truck driver from western India narrates the woes of her father who is arrested for an accident in an eastern Indian state gets convicted for two years simply because of a language barrier!
"Everyone has a story to tell.... but there are few avenues," elaborates Koral Dasputa. This is the age of self-publishing, nothing to be sneered at. Yet, the bottom of the pyramid - read daughters of truck drivers - simply cannot afford even that route. Nonetheless, they have gripping stories to tell. Remember they are the wards of soldiers on Indian highways.
A big salute to Mahindra group and Dasgupta for taking up the task of turning the spotlight on the unsung truckie.
(The author is the ethnographer-cum-author of 10,000 KM on Indian Highways and An Affair With Indian Highways and founder of KRK Foundation, a non-profit, registered trust focused on the welfare of truck drivers. He also edits Drivers Duniya, an English quarterly).