Binay Shrivastava, proprietor of Siliguri-based Sinha Roadways, is struggling to get his fleet, comprising 16 medium and heavy trucks, back on the road due to an acute shortage of drivers, most of whom left for their villages during the nationwide lockdown.
“Demand for movement of goods has improved gradually after a big soft drink bottling plant and local traders resumed operations three weeks ago, but there is acute shortage of drivers. However, demand for trucks in Siliguri was 30-35% of pre-covid levels," Shrivastava said.
“The drivers do not want to return as of now. Some of them have found work in their villages. They are doing labour work and some are not returning under family pressure. Skilled drivers are not easily replaceable and we are running short of manpower, leading to loss in business," he added.
As the market is gradually opening up, several fleet operators are witnessing a driver shortage, which is major hurdle to ramp up fleet utilization. The trucking industry is estimated to employ more than 5 million drivers, including for small commercial vehicles.
A large number of truck drivers had a tough time returning to their home states after the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March to contain the spread of covid-19. Despite the resumption of essential goods movement since April, fleet operators have failed to get the drivers back to work. Most drivers were wary of the uncertain future of the trucking industry and risks of contracting the virus, besides low wage levels and dissatisfaction at work.
According to a study by SaveLife Foundation, and Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd (M&M) released earlier this year, 53% of all drivers earn ₹10,000 -20,000 per month, while 66% feel stressed due to the lack of security and safety on road.
Many transporters said drivers were asking for a substantial hike in salary to return, as they were now employed either on the farms or for construction activities in and around their home towns and villages.
Ashok Rathi, director, Delhi Rajasthan Transport Co. Ltd (DRTC), said many truck drivers were asking for a 30% increment in their monthly salary to join back. “We are working out their salaries, but this will further bring down the viability of operations, as fuel prices are rising sharply and freight availability in the months to come remains a concern. The cost of plying trucks has increased abnormally. Increased government spending on rural jobs has resulted in lots of job opportunities in rural India," he added.
With a fleet of over 600 trucks and 200 small utility vehicles, Jodhpur-based DRTC provides transport services across nine states. Even as the company witnessed around 60% of regular bookings after the lockdown measures were eased from pre-covid levels, 40% of its fleet remains idle.
Abhishek Gupta, managing committee member, Bombay Goods Transport Association, which has about 2,000 affiliated members, together operating up to 400,000 trucks, said: “About 50-55% of these trucks are idle today because of driver shortage." Gupta added that the severe shortage of truck availability at Mumbai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust has triggered a sharp 30% hike in freight rates.