Starting 1 April 2017, drivers of new Indian trucks won’t have to suffer the experience of driving in an open cabin, braving the intense cold of Ladakh or the extreme heat of Rajasthan.
The government, through an amendment to the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988, has made it mandatory for manufacturers and the so-called truck body-builders to fit air-conditioners in the cabin in all new trucks sold from the start of the next financial year. It’s perhaps the first conscious effort made to offer a degree of physical comfort to people engaged in an otherwise punishing profession, carrying cargo year-round in often harsh weather and terrain.
The ministry of road transport and highways announced the provision in a notification dated 2 November, a copy of which has been seen by Mint.
To be sure, the Motor Transport Workers Act, 1961, guarantees them a minimum wage of Rs14,500 per month (in Delhi) along with provident fund, gratuity and medical services, but only a few logistics firms actually adhere to these norms.
India is already reeling under a shortage of truck drivers, which could become a major issue amid expanding interstate highways and the creation of a seamless national market after the proposed introduction next year of the goods and services tax that is expected to make it easier for companies and distributors to ferry industrial inputs and finished goods across states.
S.P. Singh, senior fellow, Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training (IFTRT), likened the move to playing “to the gallery”.
According to Singh, truck drivers take up the profession out of a lack of choice—they aren’t able to do anything else.
“Living conditions in their families are miserable. Then how can an AC cabin fitting change the driver’s efficiency. The government must fix the basics first,” he said.
The move has put truck manufacturers in a fix. They are due to upgrade their models to Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) emission norms from 1 April, and most models are in the process of homologation— ensuring the vehicles meet regulatory standards. The government notification on air-conditioning of cabins means an overhaul of the engine systems of these vehicles.
Not all of them are averse to the proposed change. According to Nalin Mehta, managing director and chief executive of Mahindra Trucks & Buses Ltd, it is “a very progressive step for the long run”.
“Fleet owners won’t take the initiative unless there is a legislation that forces it. For manufacturers, time-frame is not comfortable. At Mahindra, our HCVs (heavy commercial vehicles) are ready with air-conditioning systems but we will have to work on the LCVs (light commercial vehicles),” he said.
Another problem the government may have overlooked is the fact that cabins of as many as 95% of the HCVs are built outside of the factories of truck makers. Retro-fitment of air-conditioning systems, may, under these circumstances lead to safety hazards.
Cabins of most LCVs are built by original equipment makers. “Implementation of the step will be a challenge but I am hoping for a uniform body code for trucks, which will pave the way for company-built cabins. But we need to take one step at a time,” Mehta said.