Death on wheels

Who is responsible for the increasing number of highway deaths due to massively overloaded trucks?

Photographs by Ozzie Hoppe

It was late afternoon, just edging towards evening. The sun was right in our eyes as we hurtled past Ambala. We had driven all the way from Jaipur in a heat haze over the last couple of days, and were eagerly looking forward to a quiet night of repose in Chandigarh. The road was well-paved and we were approaching a velocity of 60 km/hr, a positively supersonic number for overloaded trucks, which usually average 20 km/hr on long-distance trips. 

A grey Tata Indica, containing a family of five, ventured to cross the road a little ahead of us. It caught my attention when Jorawar, our truck driver, started honking frantically. I realised he was attempting to wordlessly alert the car driver that he won’t be able to arrest the unmanageable momentum of his overloaded truck in time. And boy, was it overloaded. The truck at this point contained nearly 50 tonne of Kota stone from Ramgarh Mandi in Rajasthan, more than double its stipulated capacity of about 21 tonne. 

The Indica driver hesitated for a moment, then dismissed Jorawar’s honking, probably as old-school vehicular opportunism, and made the deadly call of plodding on to cross the road. Jorawar’s honking turned a pitch higher, now coloured by a deep shade of panic. As we neared, the Indica apparently stopped in the middle of the road, as time halted in its tracks for us. Just as I was bracing for a deafening collision, Jorawar deftly turned the steering wheel at the right moment, managing to squeeze the truck between the Indica and a bicycle on the edge of the road. Jorawar cursed aloud, relaxed his shoulders, which had become taut in a posture of alertness, and lit a cigarette as a marker of relief.

Aur log bolte hain truck driver peekar chalate hain (And they say truck drivers are always drunk at the wheel),” he says, with a dismissive grunt. After all, he had just saved the lives of five people from being consumed by an everyday killer that stalks Indian roads: innocuous-looking but outrageously overloaded vehicles.

Deadly killers

Jorawar doesn’t particularly like to drive overloaded trucks. But he is compelled to do his master’s bidding. He is one of those millions of truck drivers in India who lack sufficient bargaining power and drive overloaded trucks, putting their own and others’ lives at risk. 

Of the 30-odd truck drivers I interacted with during the course of my three-month journey across the breadth of India, only one of them was driving a truck that was underloaded. The rest of them were carrying 30-40% more than their designated load capacity; some, like Jorawar, were hauling more than double its capacity, effectively putting themselves at mortal risk. 

I spoke to almost all of the drivers about how difficult it is to drive an overloaded truck. Desensitised by the banality of overloading and hardened by years of practice, most of them had a common reply, “Load ke hisaab se adjust karke chalate hain. Thoda dheeme chalate hain kyunki brake jaldi nahi lagta (We adjust the speed as per the load because the brakes aren’t that responsive).” And they aren’t wrong. In a 2007 interview with a newspaper, SP Singh, coordinator of Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training (IFTRT), said, “When a truck is overloaded by 10%, its steering and brake control is reduced by about 50% and 40 %, respectively.” 

This scenario is no big deal for the truck drivers. Whether their nonchalance should be attributed to an understated display of bravado or resignation towards an occupational hazard is debatable. (My money’s on resignation.) But they do have little grasp over how statistically risky driving overloaded vehicles is. According to a report by IFTRT, half of the accidents on Indian roads involve overloaded trucks. Our close shave could have easily ended the wrong way, with a 60-tonne beast smashing through the Indica with the force of 100 battering rams, reducing the hatchback to the familiar mass of mangled metal we so frequently see abandoned by the side of Indian highways.

The same report observes that 92,500 people are crushed under the wheels of overloaded trucks every year, a little over 10 people killed every hour. Three-fourths of the economic loss caused by road accidents is attributed to trucks. Accurate official figures on the prevalence of overloading are difficult to obtain considering official complicity in the practice, but a 2013 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development observes, “Overloading [in India] is a rule rather than an exception in order to maximise profitability, leading to faster aging of vehicles and frequent breakdown.” IFTRT estimates that 70% of the trucks plying with national permits resort to overloading.

Overloading also causes great economic loss to the exchequer, both notional and real, due to the degradation of roads. “Poor conditions of Indian roads can be attributed to low axle load-bearing capacity and lack of maintenance. These, coupled with frequent overloading to the extent of 100%, result in road damage, increase in maintenance costs, equipment breakdown, loss of utilisation time and accidents,” observes a report by the Transport Corporation of India (TCI) and IIM-C. 

The figures vary. A Crisil report observes, “Even 10% overloading of goods carriage in excess of prescribed weight can reduce the life of roads and highways by 35%.” Meantime, Singh says, “Overloading reduces the productive life of the road by 80% and the productive life of the truck by 30%.” While the extent of damage isn’t established conclusively, the fact of it has been.

In addition to loss of steering and brake control, the tyres of an overloaded truck also come under massive strain that can cause them to burst, and this does happen quite often. Because of overloading and worn-out tyres, our journey from Kohima to Imphal was interrupted four times by tyre blow-ups, most of them causing a racket remarkably similar to that of a stray gunshot, which in those troubled areas, more than managed to alarm us. 

A law unto themselves

Understandably, overloading is prohibited under the Central Motor Act, 1988. However, like many of India’s laws, implementation is poor or virtually non-existent. This is the case even after the Supreme Court (SC) banned the practice of overloading all the way back in 2005, based on a petition that questioned the legality of certain notifications purportedly issued by various states such as Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh under the provisions of section 200 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. 

Taking cognisance of complaints, the judgement prohibited the practice among these nine states of issuing gold cards or green cards, which allowed transporters to overload vehicles after paying a penalty. The judgement also noted that when any person drives or allows to be driven in any public place any motor vehicle exceeding the specified weight (in terms of section 113 (3)), the excess weight has to be offloaded at the cost of the transporter. But, in essence, the notifications issued by the state governments permit carriage of excess weight after increasing the penalty in proportion with the extra weight being carried.

When the judgement came out, the reactions of transport associations were telling. They implored their respective state governments to intervene. “Implementation of the rule would increase the cost of transportation considerably and it would ultimately pinch the common consumer,” they pleaded. 

JS Rekhi, general secretary, Vahan Bachao Kruti Samiti, in a release, shifted the blame to the transporters’ clients. He says, “It was owing to the insistence of the consignee that the transporters had to overload the vehicles. The consignees, by doing so, try to save their transportation costs and should be held responsible for this.” This was also the refrain when the Centre in 2013 ordered overloaded trucks to be penalised 10 times the predefined toll charges. And if one adopts their point of view, one can see that transporters taking a principled stand against overloading their trucks would likely put them out of business completely. The consignees, who want to cut costs at any cost, will always move on to the next transporter, who might be more than willing to overload his truck, ensuring the status quo is maintained. Such blame games notwithstanding, who, then, is responsible for this state of affairs? 

Nobody’s innocent

Since the SC ruling in 2005, things have remained unchanged. Many states continue to openly flout SC orders by issuing circulars that allow for regularised progressive penalties in case of overloading. This is true for Rajasthan, the state from which Jorawar set forth, which admitted in 2014 that it earned ₹130 crore every year in the form of such penalties.

Rajasthan is the second-largest mineral-producing state in India. It accounts for 90% of the country’s marble output and is the second-largest producer of cement in the country. The extremely high mass density of Rajasthan’s mineral output makes it a state likely to issue circulars that legitimise overloading. Everyone I met at Transport Nagar in Udaipur said that the circular was a result of lobbying by powerful marble traders, mining companies, cement manufacturers and big transporters themselves. 

But why are transport operators so keen on overloading their trucks when it clearly accelerates long-term degradation of their vehicles and increases maintenance costs? “Short term mein faayda hota lekin long term mein hisaab lagaya toh ghate mein jaate hai (These short-term profits have long-term consequences),” says Pradeep Shekhawat, a commission agent in Udaipur who has been in the business for the past 20 years.

Shekhawat could very well be talking about the environmental crisis precipitated by our culture of relentless consumption. In this broader sense, transport owners could be seen as merely mirroring capitalist myopia, in their inability to see beyond immediate profit. But there is an underlying logic here. Shekhawat says overloading is the result of two factors. Firstly, a newly bought truck doesn’t incur maintenance costs. Secondly, transporters have loan repayments to make in the first three to four years of the truck’s lifetime.

“During the first two years, there are no maintenance costs relating to engine parts and the truck body. Insurance, permit, fitness sab set hota hai, toh poore saal dabake kamaai karte hain. Doosre saal bhi bas naya tyre lagakar overload karte hain. Uske baad overloading kam karte hain, jitna gaadi le sakti hai utna hi (When the situation is in our favour in the first year, we make a killing. The next year, we just change the tyres. Only after that do we overload in keeping with the truck’s capacity),” says Shekhawat. 

Freight rates are usually set in ₹ per km per tonne, so a transporter’s revenue from a one-way trip is directly proportional to the quantum of overloading. Shekhawat offers the example of the 400-km-long Udaipur-Sanganer route. He says a 21-tonne truck earns ₹25,000 for a one-way trip if it is fully loaded according to the norms; accounting for input costs of ₹16,000, he earns a profit of ₹9,000. If the same transporter overloads his truck to twice its capacity by loading 42 tonne of marble, he will earn a proportional ₹50,000, while his input costs will hover around ₹30,000, earning him a tidy ₹20,000 per trip, more than double what he would have earned if he had loaded the truck within its prescribed limits. 

RTO ke saath setting ho jaati hai. Lekin intra-state aasaan hota hai, inter-state mushkil hota hai (While we have an arrangement with the RTOs, inter-state transport is difficult to fix),” says Shekhawat. This ‘setting’ could take the form of one-time monthly payments directly to the higher-ups or be disbursed in instalments along the way to pliant officials. “Vehicle overloading is a very common practice and truckers report that as much as 10% of their freight revenue may be taken up in payments to facilitate passage of overloaded vehicles,” observes a 2005 World Bank report.

All over the country, the transport department is notorious for corruption. Stories of untold wealth being hidden under the sofas and bathroom tiles of transport department employees — even supposedly lowly clerks — circulate among drivers and commission agents at Transport Nagar in Udaipur. Indeed, in 2011, anti-corruption officials recovered #30 crore from an RTO clerk in Indore. 

“Madhya Pradesh is one of the most corrupt states. You should come to the MP-Rajasthan border to see how they collect money in gunny bags and video record it,” the truckers say. They retrieve coded receipts for monthly haftas from their belongings and lay it on the table for me to see. “A Q means a payment of ₹5,000 has been made, while an SS means ₹3,500 paid, depending on the load capacity of the truck” they say, hinting at how corruption has been elevated to an art form among transport officials.

“The border officials only accept monthly haftas from us and that hafta receipt is recognised only at that particular border post. If you want to enter Madhya Pradesh via another border checkpost, that will require a separate monthly hafta, forcing one to go through the same border and take a longer route,” add the truckers.

Nature of the industry

TCI, the largest organised player in the transportation business, expresses helplessness in this issue and blames smaller operators, who constitute over 80% of the transportation industry. In one of its reports, it says “Small operators collude with corrupt officials and police and flout all rules and regulations, evade taxes, resort to overloading of vehicles and indulge in other unethical practices. Since organised players have to directly compete with small operators, there is immense downward pressure on pricing.” This is a vicious cycle since pricing pressure leaves less scope for investment and upgradation of trucks.

India has one of the lowest freight rates in the world due to the highly fragmented and competitive nature of the industry and the under-utilisation of trucks. TCI assumes the average load factor in India to be 100%. “This reflects current operating practice where a few trucks operate without load (especially over long distances) and there is frequent overloading. The reluctance to operate without load could be one reason for the low utilisation of trucks (at around 80,000 km per year). Unorganised players make about 4-5% and organised players make about 10-15% margins,” observes a TCI report.  

Is stern implementation, then, the only way to make sure transporters fall in line with regulations? There is certainly some hope in that direction. In a 2014 meeting with highway officials, Nitin Gadkari, the union transport minister, said there was a need to check overloading, which he observed is one of the major reasons for road accidents and damage to public infrastructure. The Centre has now directed violators to be booked under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act.

An official in the ministry stated, “We have written to all states that allowing overloaded vehicles to ply is a contempt of court. The states must levy penalty on vehicles for overloading when this is detected. But they must also ensure that the extra cargo is offloaded and the expenses in this process must be borne by the vehicle owner.” 

But ignoring the on-ground reality of highways is also not a wise strategy for policy-makers. After the 2005 SC ruling, state governments had observed the logistical difficulties of offloading overloaded cargo, citing the possibility of causing traffic jams. Indeed, the structure of the transportation industry needs a serious overhaul if overloading of trucks is to be discontinued. Currently, overloading of trucks remains a sweet win-win deal for both transporters and consignees and this is the cause of its continued perpetuation in contempt of SC orders. 

“Ultimately, overloading will stop only when, across the board, effective implementation of existing laws ensures that the costs incurred due to overloading in the form of penalties exceed the profits to be gained. To achieve this, whenever an overloaded truck is caught, all officials on that route should be held accountable, and both transporters and consigners should be penalised,” says Shekhawat. Because, next time, another family of five in a grey Indica may not be as lucky.