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.
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.