The call of the long and winding, at times treacherous, highways on the Imphal-Jiribam and Imphal-Dimapur line has evinced a daring response from the truck drivers who frequent these routes. Despite the harsh Covid-19 lockdown which has forced them to go the long distances alone, without other traffic, they have been more than successful in meeting the new challenge as the dreaded disease traverses it’s distance in all facets of life. Like other essential services such as the police and health, with all the shortcomings of equipment etc., the continued flow of goods through inter-state trucks leaves one assured that supplies and essential rations will not be affected in the state.
Around 220-300 trucks reach the Inter State Bus Terminus (ISBT) at Khuman Lampak each day to offload at Imphal and the districts, and at least 200 are able to leave for the return journey from Imphal daily in a constant cycle. The truckers who arrive along with their vehicles stay overnight at the ISBT where the government is supplying them free rations, while they make do with sleeping inside their trucks.
Drivers and handymen queing up for travel papers
My sojourn at the ISBT saw me speaking to half-a-dozen pair of drivers and handymen even as trucks kept arriving constantly at the main gate, or leaving for their outbound destinations. I don’t know how to surmise the co-incidence but all except one of them was Muslim; maybe a late trend that has attracted enterprising youths to the folds of highway driving – most of the drivers and handymen around the place were in their early 20s. On usual days the terminus has a number of buses leaving for Ukhrul but even with the buses going off service there is sign of overuse of the ISBT, which is littered, and I noticed when I saw the slush from the rains that the whole terminus floor is not cemented, making dust rise in the dryer parts every time there is a strong wind or a truck revs up.
Nurul Haq had just arrived an hour back after a time-bound mandatory overnight halt at Keithelmanbi on the way from Phulto in Cachar from where they had loaded goods for the Apex company in Imphal. They faced many difficulties on the way with localities not allowing them to station nearby and not selling any foodstuff. On arrival at Imphal they had just finished cooking, and after leaving it to cool, were getting ready for their meal when I met them. I spoke to Haq for a while before asking him to take his food first after which he joined me in the conversation on their journey.
The drivers are given medical test four times; on arrival at the state border and then at the ISBT, and while leaving after offloading, at the same places again. While the medical tests seem to be in place the five days up-down journey is many times delayed when the trucks have to line up at the Barak and Makru bridge whose condition is not good and need constant repairs. Haq, who is from Cachar, also said there is better understanding in his locality and people are not the complaining sort when it comes to stay there. Plus he tells them he had his tests done. The ASHA volunteers are helping in getting the tests done in Cachar and till now he has had no occasion for quarantine. Here it may be interesting to mention that Pintu Gupta from Bihar, who was coming from Dimapur in the truck of a transport company he is employed with, had already jumped the testing protocol at the ISBT, and stay regulations too, when I met him with his luggage outside the ISBT. He was waiting for someone who was to pick him up, and told me tests had been done at two places on the way, while praising the personnel for their efficiency. The police at the testing centres were also in full protective gear, he said while informing that the ride was very good with police and locals offering food on the way.
On normal days too, the truckers are four to five days on the highways, and then take up to three more days to get loaded before departing again. The salary they get is also according to the trips they make and is same as in normal times. Haq makes Rs. 4000-5000 on each trip with expenses of Rs. 400-500 daily. Their drivers’ union, he said, is also giving an allowance of Rs. 1000 to each driver. They don’t stay for long because of the expenses also and are ready to leave immediately once the goods are offloaded. Also it’s difficult to stay enclosed inside the ISBT for long hours as they can go in or out only with their vehicles. It’s better to be on the way, though it’s mostly jungles and takes 14-15 hours one way, and they have to stop and cook also sometimes when they get stuck. Haq also felt it’s not just the money but the sense of duty at these times which eggs them on each day.
Another common complaint was the illegal taxes being collected on the way. Kamrul, Najmul Hussain Laskar and Mohammad Sajid, drivers of three different trucks said they had to pay money on the way to way layers. While Kamrul did not disclose the amount but said a receipt was given by the ‘IM’ on the Dimapur-Imphal stretch, the other two who came through the Jiri road said they paid Rs. 5000 each to unknown elements who waylaid them on motorcycles on deserted stretches or had even set up a shed to do the collection of ‘taxes’.
As it was lunch time many of the truckers were cooking their food when I met them. Kamrul from Silchar had also just arrived from Dimapur with a load of sugar and atta on his truck. He would be leaving on the day itself if they were able to finish offloading. The entry and exit regulations seem to have made the recycling of parking space quicker at the ISBT. The entries for outgoing and incoming trucks are done at the gate diligently by some policemen manning the gate in the hot afternoon sun. As Kamrul stays with his handyman Asin in a rented room in Dimapur it seems no one has asked him any questions till now about their Covid-19 status. His mahajan had also given them extra money for paying the ‘taxes’ on the way and the terms seem to be known to both parties.
Another Muslim driver Farooq from Lilong suddenly seemed to remember the rules for social distancing, and reminding me too of the rules, moved a few feet away as I spoke to him. He said 50 to 60 trucks had come together on the day from Jiribam and they had been given seals on the forearm. They were also not allowed by locals to get down from the truck but could buy supplies from shops they knew. Also no one asked them not to stop over on the way. He says he and his accompanist would like to go home for some time if they didn’t get a chance to load again after reaching Jiri.
I met Najmul Hussain Laskar, a resident of Guwahati near the canteen at the main gate and he took me to where the free supply of rice, dal, potatoes, onions and oil was available for the truckers, for two persons, twice a day. The services started since the lockdown began, and though they could not calculate the total amount supplied till then, the attendants at the counter said it was a sizeable amount, and all given by the state government. Najmul was to leave the next morning on the Jiribam road and says that earlier when there were escorts with the convoy illegal taxes could be avoided; now the drivers were prone to the threat at places like Barak, Makru and a place he thought is named Shantiguna. Mohammad Sajid from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh also joined us there and said he had also suffered the same fate as Najmul at the hands of the ‘tax collectors’. Sajid is driving alone and carried medical supplies for the CRPF from Haridwar till Sichar from where he loaded potatoes for Imphal.
All the drivers think the lockdown is necessary and are satisfied with it. Sajid said it’s for everybody and the lockdown arrangement is good at the ISBT. He however said that though police arrangement at the ISBT was up to the mark, on the way, at every barrier, the policemen had taken Rs. 400-500 from him. He said his next destination depends on the broker firm in Haridwar which arranges for his trips.