Shifting tracks

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How a trucker adapted to the changes brought about by COVID

Natarajan* has spent his whole adult life in trucking, thirty-five years to be exact. He was barely sixteen when he started work as a cleaner and helper in a truck. He got his license when he was nineteen. Since then, it has been a life on the road for him. He moved from a small transport company in Salem to a much bigger company in Bangalore in 2002. The prospects looked good. He would now be driving larger trucks, trucks with national permits. More days on the road and more trips meant more money. He moved into a small house near Mysore Road with his mother, wife, and two children.

Life fell into a nice routine. He would be away regularly, for long stretches of time. His regular route would take him from Bangalore to Mumbai and from there to Ahmedabad. Natarajan learned the tricks of being a successful trucker quite early. Safe driving, zero damage to goods, on-time deliveries, and a few side jobs on the way. His boss was happy, and he got to earn a bit extra on every trip.  There were two family trips that Natarajan looked forward to each year. A trip to Salem to attend a temple festival in his village and a visit to temples in Kollur or Murdeshwar. He would spend time with his kids and relax. And for once there would be no driving. They usually took a bus.

Natarajan had nine good years. And then he met with an accident in 2011. He remembers that night clearly. He was near Pune. It was raining heavily, and the tyres were bald. The truck skidded when he braked and went off the road. The vehicle was damaged, and he was hurt badly. He fractured his right leg; maybe the leg was not set properly or maybe he did not give it enough rest, he does not know the exact reason, but that accident gave Natarajan a permanent limp. This had consequences. He could no longer do those long trips in big trucks. He moved to a smaller company and started driving smaller trucks. He now earned a lot less as the distances were much shorter.

Natarajan and his wife started saving for his daughter’s wedding when she was a child. He got his daughter married in 2016. He had to spend around four lakh rupees for the wedding. Meanwhile, his son dropped out of school after he failed to clear his 12th standard and started driving cabs for a travel agency.

Natarajan had a major switch planned for 2020. He wanted to get out of transport and trucks and get into travel and taxis. His son had been doing well. He was earning more than Natarajan and his line of work was less stressful. There were a lot of long trips. And the prospects seemed very bright.

Natarajan’s lockdown experience

Natarajan was on the road when the lockdown was announced. He had gone to Karwar. On the way back all vehicles were stopped. He tried doing what truck drivers do when their vehicles are stopped, he greased a few palms. This only worked for a short while. The cops had become a lot stricter this time. He had to park near a filling station for three nights. There were a lot of drivers there. They spoke of a new disease that had come from China. Finally, they got permission to drive on. Natarajan picked up a family on the way. They were walking towards their village in Davengere. They had no money to pay but they offered him a place to rest at their home in the village.

This initial taste of life under lockdown was nothing compared to what was to come. Natarajan had no work for the next six months. The transport company owner paid him and the other drivers five thousand rupees each for the first three months. He could not do anything more after that. Before the lockdown, Natarajan used to earn about thirty thousand rupees in a good month, twenty in a bad month. Three months into the lockdown he was earning nothing. His son had also lost his job. His daughter and granddaughter had also moved in with him. He hoped that whatever trouble his daughter was having with his son-in-law would be resolved soon.

Unlock

Although the lockdown was lifted in June there was no work till September. The transport company owner told all the drivers to organize their own trips. Now Natarajan had to maintain the truck, he had to look for work, and pay for diesel on his own. There was not much work to be found except for the odd trip to K.R. Market or the carting of household goods when someone was shifting homes. For someone who was on the road all his life, this time spent mostly sitting around doing nothing was torturous.

His mother was nearly ninety now and he worried about her. Whenever he went out, he masked up. He bought a large can of sanitizer. He would sanitize his truck, keeping it as clean as possible. He stayed away from his mother. There was no way of knowing if he was exposed to the infection. If he stayed away from his mother, she would not be at risk he reasoned. 2020 was the first year when they did not celebrate any of the festivals. No clothes were bought for Diwali. All of them started having ayurvedic supplements and kashayams regularly as a precaution against getting infected. Natarajan and his son would make regular trips to the hardware and timber markets, scouting for business. The constant refrain they would hear was, “we have no orders, how can we book trips?”.

The second wave scared Natarajan. He no longer worried about work and money. He just wanted to keep his family safe. He shut himself up at home from the middle of March. He had trouble getting rations. The shop timings kept shifting. Everything was very confusing. Last year there was a strict lockdown but this year there were a lot of mixed messages. He did not understand what was happening. Initially, there was no lockdown during weekdays. Then there was a full lockdown. Then certain localities were under lockdown. All he knows is that the second wave was a lot worse than the first. Many friends were infected, a few succumbed to COVID. His savings have come down drastically since the second lockdown. By mid-June, he had to start looking actively for work. Thankfully everyone in his family was spared. Natarajan and his wife have managed to get both doses of the vaccine.

A new life

The transport company owner has decided to shut down his operations. He has lost a lot of money since the national lockdown. He gave Natarajan the choice of buying the truck that he has been driving over the last six years. But Natarajan is not very keen on it. He had planned to get a taxi along with his son. He has dropped this plan as well. Who will need taxis if people are going to be working from home? And who will go on vacation till this virus goes away? Natarajan has now been pushed into entrepreneurship. He is on the look-out for a loan to buy a Tata Ace. He can drive it with his son. Multiple short trips in a day. This will give them a regular income. There will be more stability. This is the track he hopes to finally settle into.

*All names have been changed to protect privacy

About the author

Suresh Mohankumar

A seasoned strategist with 28 years of experience conceiving, launching and growing some of India’s biggest brands, Suresh, has worked as the head of Strategic Planning in large advertising agencies.

He is known for breaking down complex situations to bring meaningful insights to the surface in order to arrive at a water-tight strategy.

He has handled a variety of categories like Automobiles, Jewelry, FMCG, AlcoBev, Leisure, Food, Fashion, Retail, Technology, New Media, etc.

By Suresh Mohankumar

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