Panagarh, West Bengal: Gupteshwar Singh is a happy man with good reason. The scrap dealer in this small town along the Grand Trunk Road (GT Road), about 150km from Kolkata, has got orders for an entire lot of army disposal MM550 utility vehicles made by Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd.
“Some workers of a leader from Bhojudih in Jharkhand want them for the elections,” says Singh, who would otherwise have had to wait for weeks, if not months, to dispose of his stock.
This town in Burdwan district of West Bengal survives on the huge vehicle and ammunition depots run by the army, apart from an air force base and a smattering of army units.
However, its claim to fame is the vehicle depot, the largest of its kind in eastern India, which regularly disgorges old vehicles of the three services.
From Royal EnfieldBullet motorcycles to Mahindra utility vehicles, from Shaktiman trucks to Ashok Leyland Stallions, even Tatra tank transporters, they can all be spotted along the GT Road or in yards belonging to dealers, waiting for customers or to be cut up and sold to the many iron and steel mills in the neighbourhood.
The enterprising scrap dealers of Panagarh also source old vehicles from government departments and paramilitary forces all over the eastern and north-eastern regions.
“Of late, however, our market has dwindled because of tighter emission norms, which mean these vehicles cannot be registered in the metros and big cities as also the (economic) slowdown, which has seen demand for scrap falling,” says Arvinder Singh Kohli, who runs Kohli Motors, the largest dealership in disposal vehicles in Panagarh. “However, things are looking up because of the elections as jeeps, Maruti Gypsies and motorcycles are in high demand (now).”
Singh sold his lot of five vehicles to the Jharkhand politician for Rs1.50 lakh each ahead of the month-long general election that starts on 16 April. “This includes the cost of doing up the vehicle, adding bells and whistles as per the customer’s request and registering at a small district town,” says Singh. Many politicians don’t even bother to get them registered. “Apart from flagpoles and extra handles, they even add sirens and red lights to impress the simple rural folk,” says Singh. These vehicles are used not only for campaigning but also to move the leaders’ strongmen, or bahubali as they are called in these parts, and to run errands.
“All army vehicles are hardy and equipped with four-wheel drive, so the partymen can pile on to them and fan out to remote parts of Bihar and Jharkhand with ease,” says Narsingh Shaw, another dealer who says he’s sold three MM550s that run on diesel and are more economical, and a Maruti Gypsy.
The Gypsy runs on petrol, but offers a more comfortable ride. The Bullets, also painted in party colours and fitted with flagpoles, are used as outriders ahead of the convoy of candidates.
All these vehicles are what the Armed Forces call Class V. They have reached the end of their service life either because they have served their allotted number of years or have covered their allotted mileage, or both.
Yet, some vehicles are in decent shape and require only basic repairs to become roadworthy again. While the dealers are unwilling to disclose how much they pay for the vehicles, they admit that profits soar ahead of elections.
Not less than 100 utility vehicles, Gypsies and motorcycles are likely to be sold in the run-up to the general election, according to Shaw. “In these two months, we do business worth almost a crore and a half,” says Shaw.
Scrap dealers of Panagarh have been receiving orders even from agents in Delhi’s Mayapuri, who, in turn, sell abandoned utility vehicles and motorcycles in northern India.
The depot at Panagarh itself auctions around 100 vehicles a year, according to Subroto Biswas, a former deputy commandant of the Vehicle Depot, Panagarh. “Other than this, vehicles from depots in north Bengal and Assam also find their way to the dealers at Panagarh,” says Biswas.
Dealers claim they buy 400-500 vehicles a year from the defence services, but how many they normally manage to recondition and sell couldn’t be ascertained.