Life in the slow lane

The formative journey of a fledgling truck into a beast of burden is quite fascinating. However, business is in the dumps for truck-body builders in Sirhind in Punjab

Barring an inconspicuous rectangular piece of metal engraved with ‘Mewa Singh & Co’ nailed to the side of the cabin door, in no way does Jorawar Singh’s truck betray the fact that it has been fashioned entirely by the human hand in a cacophonous karkhana and not assembled en masse out of a sterile company facility. Nor could anybody gather the truck body is wooden in its basic composition. To the lay eye, the truck body appears to be but a mere extension of the engine — a forbidding mass of metal you wouldn’t want to overtake on the wrong side of the highway. The reality, however, is much more fascinating. 

We’re in Sirhind, a pocket-sized town in Punjab of religio-historical significance to Sikhs and religious significance to Muslims, located around 45 kms from Chandigarh. Since the last 60 years, Sirhind has retained its position as one of the most prominent truck body-building centres in India, but is fast losing its monopoly over the trade to newer entrants in northern India. 

Previously, truckers we encountered in Jaipur had been driving a super-density load vehicle, piled with 50 tons of Kota stone (limestone mined in Kota district used for construction work) instead of the permissible 21 tons, proceeding perilously with more than double its designated weight to Chandigarh. Jorawar swore by the sturdiness of truck bodies constructed in Sirhind, which enabled him to drive overburdened trucks regularly without so much as making a dent in the body. Intrigued, we decided to take a look for ourselves at the formative journey of a fledgling truck on its way to becoming a beast of burden. 

The workshop

Mewa Singh & Co, established in 1978, is one of the largest truck body-builders in Sirhind with an annual turnover of over ₹1 crore. At a first glance, on a scorching day, the entrance to the establishment provides stark contrast to the brightness around us — a dark rectangular brick-lined opening large enough for one truck to pass through, tucked away on a service road adjoining the Grand Trunk Road flyover in Sirhind. 

Mewa Singh, the man himself, is a 64-year-old grizzly Sikh with a graceful furrowed face, inseparable from his mobile phone. He’s addressed as sardarji, both by awaiting customers and the artisans at work, with the awe and reverence reserved for honest capable leaders.  

The four-acre workshop is an imposing undistempered brick structure lined with cabinets, tools, irregular aluminium cutouts, stencils, iron sheets and dusty photos of Sikh gurus and Hindu gods and goddesses. A big poster of Guru Gobind Singh, along with his two sons, both less than 10 years old, executed by the governor of Sirhind in 1704, adorns the wall to the right of the entrance. Below the image it is written in large Gurmukhi font, “Koti Koti Pranaam” (A Thousand Prayers). 

Kashmiri-truck owners, smoking cigarettes and monitoring the modifications of their truck bodies, lounge on crudely welded iron chairs while workers toil cheerfully. America-returned Sikh owners — patriarchs with paunches protruding out of  their colourful kurtas and their progeny sporting trendy faded jeans and branded J Crew T-shirts -— are engrossed in watching an artist apply daubs of maroon paint to the back of their truck, interrupted by a fountain of electric arc sparks that startles them into dodging and stomping their feet in mild panic.

A teenage boy, whom I later see Whatsapping, distributes sweet chai around, which is steaming hot respite on a hard day. It takes a while to wrap one’s head around the variety of tasks being performed in the workshop. The place is an echo chamber of clangs, bangs and whirs mingled with the sounds of laughter and loud conversations.  

A mobile home

For a truck driver, who typically spends more than eight months on the road, commissioning a truck body is equivalent of buying a house for your average sedentary. A pretty big deal, as one can imagine, it is an affair that all begins with a ‘chassis’. Not many outside the trade would know this but truck manufacturers only supply the ‘rolling chassis’ or ‘chassis’ to drivers — the bare-bones metallic framework that holds together the engine, tyres, suspension, exhaust system and steering box. Putting it in other words, every truck you’ve seen has been painstakingly assembled, piece by piece, by a highly specialised group of carpenters and decorators, who use their bare hands and a few basic tools. 

Asked about how truck models have changed over the years, Mewa Singh says, “‘Chassis’ have changed, they’ve become bigger and stronger; two mirrors have been introduced now instead of one earlier. Engine horsepower has also been upgraded regularly and some trucks like Tata Prima even have air-conditioning and sensors.”

The raw materials that goes in making truck bodies are plywood, sunmica, iron, aluminium, radium tape and Malaysian/Indian sal wood. Sal wood is a vital constituent, scientifically named as shorea robusta for its durability and sturdiness. Truckers claim sal bodies constructed in Sirhind can carry up to 65 tons of high-density load such as marble and other construction materials, as opposed to 25-30 tons in the normal course of work. Transport companies involved in commissioning overloaded marble trucks usually prefer to have them constructed in Sirhind or Nagaur, another truck body-building centre in Rajasthan. 

So how does one go from chassis to a full-fledged truck? First, a metal and wood exoskeleton is erected over the drivers’ seat and the back eventually becomes the cabin and the body. The sides of the truck are boarded with rectangular iron slabs stretching around three-fourths of the truck height. The rest of the body consists of sal wooden slabs, painted the same colour as the iron slabs to lend it a continuous appearance. The base of the body that bears the weight of the load is made of sal wood, durable for over 20 years, claim the Kashmiri truckers.

One group of workers welds the exoskeleton into place and another group nails it with iron sheets lending the truck a metallic aspect. The gaps in the cabin superstructure are covered with slabs of sal wood and plastered with iron sheets replete with geometrical aluminium shapes nailed to them, lending the cabin a sturdy metallic appearance contiguous with the rest of the truck. Once the cabin exterior is finished, the interior decorators get to work according to the likes of the drivers, preparing hidden cabinets and applying radium tape, as per demand, to make the cabin glow in the night. Then the electricians arrive and set up the music system and the fan. Once both the truck body and cabin are done, the truck is spray-painted. Later, the artists arrive and do the typography and illustrations on the truck.

Jagdish Sharma, a decorator hailing from Madhubani district in Bihar, is engrossed in cutting perfect geometrical shapes like stars out of aluminium strips and nailing them to iron chaddar. He says, up to 30 ft of iron chaddar is used in covering up a truck. Sharma is one among the 20 other workers in this workshop, segregated by functionality. Each group is assigned a specific task which they perform with utter obliviousness to their surroundings in a well-organised assembly line. 

Mewa Singh’s two sons stroll around the facility, as if trumpeting their physical separation from the grime of their trade, their corpulence standing out in the midst of the surrounding leanness.  Mewa Singh’s nephew, who runs a truck spare parts shop in the same compound saunters into the workshop, sporting low-waist jeans, egregiously displaying his Jockey underwear, an unseemly sight of prosperity in the grim environs of the workshop.

At one time, around 7-8 trucks are being hammered at in varying degrees of progress — some are skeletal iron structures with a steering box and wheels, some are incompletely fortified with iron and wood, while others in the final stages of windup are being spray-painted with a hose, the green residue finding its way on to the clothes. The workers are segregated as electricians, welders, decorators, body-makers, cabin-makers, painters and fluorescent radium tape artisans. Their work timings are from 10 am to 9 pm with a lunch break from 1-2 pm. They get a holiday on Sunday. 

Typical turnaround time for trucks is around a month, the workshop churning out 7-8 trucks in a month by utilising the skilled labour of 30 to 40 workers, the numbers depending on the availability of work. During the period in which the trucks are being built, owners stay in the accommodation arranged by Mewa Singh in Sirhind and supervise the work, providing inputs as required.  

The owners

The overwhelmingly large number of drivers I see waiting around their trucks happen to be Kashmiris. Truckers say that many villages in Kashmir claim truck driving as their dominant village occupation. The owner-drivers I met hailed from a village of 300 households near Anantnag (or Islamabad, as they call it as an afterthought) that had more than 100 truckers. Overall, buying a truck costs them around ₹19-20 lakh. “We took  a loan of ₹12 lakh at an interest rate of 12% which comes to a monthly instalment of ₹30,000. We usually manage to pocket ₹50,000 a month depending on the business is,” says Farooque, 40, a lean, slit-eyed man ,who had been a khalassi (apprentice) for eight years and has been driving since the last 20 years.

Kashmiri drivers transport apples and dry fruits such as walnuts and apricots all over India. In the peak apple season, when overloading is common, they manage to make as much as ₹1 lakh a month. Freight rates for Kashmiri drivers in Srinagar are ₹70-100 for one peti of apples weighing 18-20 kgs. A commissioning agent charges ₹800-1000 for every trip the drivers make. The truck owners have to pay for the loading and unloading cost themselves instead of the final buyer or seller, who bears an additional cost of around ₹1,200 every trip, considering an average load of 600 petis at ₹ 2/peti. Clearly, the cards are stacked against truck drivers in India.

Besides the unloading costs, toll and entry taxes costs ₹4,000 to merely enter the Delhi city. The Kashmiri drivers are generally targeted by the Delhi Police, so they avoid going there together, preferring to transport apples to Ahmedabad where they think the people are fair and hospitable. They are also particularly contemptuous of Uttar Pradesh and Bihari residents, after an incident where a passerby demanded ₹50 just to give directions, but still maintain amiable relations with the Bihari workers in the karkhana

Bihari labour 

Surprisingly — or maybe not, considering Punjab’s crippling opium problem that has decimated an entire generation of youth — there are only two Sikh workers in an army of around 25 to 30 Biharis, most of them who hail from Madhubani district. This district and the neighbouring Terai region of Nepal is famous for its distinctive art forms as a result of which design and decoration are often traditional occupations for the people here. I had previously encountered workers from Madhubani district in the jewellery industry in Mumbai, sculpting intricate moulds with equal sincerity. 

Shamsher Singh, a resident of Madhubani, is a carpenter involved in boarding up the body and earns ₹380 as daily wages everyday. He appears rather busy handling sharp instruments precariously and to avoid any undue bodily harm to him caused by my interference, I walk away. Alongside, Sharma, a man with a neat moustache and strikingly clean clothes is quite apparently content with his profession, which involves ‘decoration work’ of the cabin exterior. He has lived in Sirhind for the last 24 years and came here with a couple of his fellow villagers. His father was a carpenter by trade and he had received some preliminary training in the trade which helped his cause. In a day he tries to finish the decoration work for a single truck, for which he gets paid ₹15,000 a month, he says. 

Vinod Kumar, a dark shifty man, who hails from Shamli in Muzaffarnagar district has been painting trucks for the last 12-13 years. Hedoes both the typography and the imagery on the trucks for which he gets paid ₹600 per truck and he shares that with a partner.It takes him from morning till the late afternoon to finish painting one truck. 

Kumar says broad daubs of paint are applied to the back of the truck to prepare the base colours of the scenery, which includes demure women in chaniya-cholis to mountain scenery. He lets the base dry for half an hour and then returns to apply the finishing touches. Quite significantly, Kumar says he’s an artist, saying no other adjective is fit to describe him.  

Slump in business

At around five in the evening, as the light is fading and a golden hue is cast over the vast workshop, Mewa Singh invites me for an interview over a cup of tea. Mewa’s office is huddled away in one corner of the workshop, a grim functional room whose primary piece of furniture is an almirah in which Mewa discreetly deposits cash after a transaction. 

Just as we are about to start, the American-returned Sikh truck owner walks in and occupies the seat beside Mewa, murmuring into his ear while casting hostile stares in my direction, wishing me away silently. I soon overhear them negotiating a part-cash part-cheque deal and realise the owner is requesting for 10-15 days more from Mewa to pay the full amount for the finished truck. “Pata nahi kab paise jaande hain,” he says, in a business-like tone conveying both cordiality and desperation. Mewa, however, takes the undesirable request quite well and grants him the extension gracefully. 

At the end of the transaction, Mewa Singh hands him over a metal plate with his company name and address as the maker of the truck, very much like the one on Jorawar’s truck which led me to this workshop. The owner soon walks out with an unbefitting swagger. It is only after the owner leaves that Mewa displays his displeasure, telling me that many customers are not being able to pay their dues on time because of a general economic slump.

Commercial vehicles (CV), the arteries that carry goods across the breadth of the country, are an important lag indicator to economic growth. The CV market has been down in the dumps since the past couple of years, reporting back-to-back negative sales growth figures. The fiscal year of 2015 posted sales of 6.14 lakh CVs, in comparison to 6.32 lakh CVs in the last fiscal, a decline of around 3%. The economy is yet to recover in spite of all promises of acche din. Interestingly, some truckers claim a ban on sand mining has affected construction activity in several states, severely impacting their business. 

Mewa says that five to seven years ago his business was booming, but he’s undergoing heavy losses since the last three years. This is due to various reasons -— the price for having one truck body built have been sticky at ₹3 lakh since the last three years while raw material prices have gone up over the last few years, labour costs have shot up significantly and competition is nibbling away at his customer base. “5-7 hazaar idhar udhar bolo, aagey bhaag jaata hai aadmi,” he says.

However, Sirhind remains popular with drivers from Jammu & Kashmir, says Mewa, and I could indeed see that most of the expectant drivers were Kashmiris or Ladakhis. “Haryanvi and Punjabi drivers don’t come to Sirhind anymore because of new entrants in the truck-body building business in Patiala, Moga, Zira and Jalandhar (which has facilities for building both trucks and buses). Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh has also emerged as a truck body-building centre, so trucks from the UP-Bihar no longer flock to Sirhind,” he says adding, “But even competitors are losing money, that’s for sure.” 

Wages have also shot up, claims Mewa. However, workers glance around nervously when asked about their salary. Salaries here aren’t the most transparent affair and judging by the figures quoted to me by the majority, they get paid somewhere in the range of  ₹12-15 thousand a month. But then workers are also paid according to their expertise and value-addition to the truck body. Mewa says that both body and cabin workers were paid equally, but those who are skilled at both are paid more. Painting and electrical work is given out on thekas (contracts). Contractors charge around ₹6,000 for painting the whole truck and the electrician charges around ₹1,500 per truck. 

His final statement, however, is a nostalgic lament of the glory days in Sirhind as a reputed truck building centre where truckers flocked from far and wide. “We still retain our reputation but business is slipping. Earlier competition was less and work more, now work is less and competition is intensifying,” he says, his melancholy eyes drifting away into space, not entirely without a shred of hope.

This is the first feature in a six-part series on the highway economy. You can read part two here.