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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

Photographs by Ozzie Hoppe

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 Sirhi

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