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High & dry truckers left to chase chicken

Vijaywada, April 20: At the wheel, they chase the wind and away from it, the temptations that line the highway leading to India’s truck capital. With their life thrown off gear by the week-long nationwide transporters’ strike, the men who man the trucks are chasing chicken.

Policemen have fined some drivers for raiding chicken coops at Hanuman junction near here. More unfortunate was the one who was beaten up by residents of Anakapally, further down on the Chennai-Howrah highway, when he stole rice and vegetables.

“All these are petty offences. But it indicates the desperation of the men who have been stranded for a week in unfamiliar areas,” said Jaswant Yadav, who is leading a convoy of 10 trucks from Chennai to Ranchi.

Standing bare torso in the searing heat, the 35-year-old was speaking for the 23,000 drivers and their assistants of 7,000 lorries, including tankers, trucks and vehicle carriers of Tata, stranded by the highway since the midnight of April 13.

All along the Chennai-Howrah highway, which snakes through Andhra Pradesh — touching Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam, Nellore, Eluru and Anakapally among other towns — and Orissa to reach Bengal, vehicles were lined up in hundreds as union leaders ensured that the strike was total. “Even muscle was used to curb indiscipline,” said a functionary of the Krishna District Lorry Owners Association.

Of the 1.6 lakh lorries registered in Andhra Pradesh, the Krishna district accounts for nearly 35,000 vehicles and 1.5 per cent share of the country’s transport trade. Vijayawada, the truck capital situated near four important highways, is home to 23,000 trucks.

Association president Y. Eswar Rao claimed the strike was 100 per cent in the district. “We have taken care that none of the drivers will die of starvation. After a few more days, we plan to provide free food to them as well,” he said.

But for the truckers idling by the highway, trying to while away time by playing cards, tuning in to their favourite radio stations or simply gossiping, frustration is creeping in.

“Threat of a massive HIV infection has driven the union leaders to keep us away from the local women,” complained Jaswant. While his team’s destination is Ranchi, Jaswant will not be stopping at home there. He will drive his empty tanker further to Mumbai.

A group driving vehicles registered in Nagaland were stuck near Nidamanur, about 30 km from Vijayawada. They have been tuned in to news from their home state of Bihar and claimed to have heard that tankers have been taken out of the purview of the strike. “But the local union leaders refuse to listen to us and do not let us leave,” said Rajesh Roy of Chhapra, his anger apparent.

While the truckers struggled through a life turned topsy-turvy by the strike, establishments dependent on them were not doing any better. “We have the lorries and their men around us longer than usual. But none seems to have the money to buy the wares,” said Kondal Rao of the Sardar Singh Sohan petrol bunk near Godavalli, about 10 km from Hanuman junction. Instead of 10,000 litres of diesel per day, now they are selling less than 2,000 litres.

Santosh Rawat, an Oriya cook who runs the Bombay Dhaba near Gudivada, cribbed: “The drivers do not want to spend money on food now. Instead of eating lavishly, they are cooking their own food. They are even living without women.”

Concurred Padma, a woman who caters to the drivers at Kankipadu near here. “They are more homesick now than lovesick. They do not want even women offered free.”

But the police and union leaders are keeping an eye on the drivers and their helpers stranded far from home and have urged them to keep off the local women.

The District Aids Control Society and Atheist Centre, an NGO, are not taking any risk. They claim to have been refilling the free Nirodh distribution boxes every third day for the past week. Usually, the refilling takes place once a week.

With the number of HIV cases growing by the highways around Vijayawada at an alarming rate of 7 per cent in the last two years, the state government had hired 127 NGOs to spread awareness among the truckers.

“Not only had the government put up condom-vending machines at every 100 km on the Chennai-Howrah and Vijayawada-Nagpur belt, it had also set up AIDS consultancy clinics at every major town on the highway,” said G. Samaram, chief of Atheist Centre.

As the truckers tussled with their desires and the uncertainty, those stranded at Samarlakota spent their idle week arranging the wedding of a cleaner. With the help of a local fuel bunk owner and Kankipadu sub-inspector Raghunath Rao, young Ashwath Roy was married to Pramila, who was in the flesh trade, at the local police station on Thursday. The local unions pitched in by sponsoring a small feast and presenting gifts to the newly-weds.

The happy groom, a 25-year-old Bengali settled in Bihar, said he did not want to become a truck driver anymore. Now that he was married, he wanted a job that would enable him to lead a normal family life.

The day before, the local unions had cooked a special dinner for 1,000 truckers from Bengal and Orissa to celebrate Poila Boisakh, the Bengali New Year.

But the portents are not good. The transport trade in Andhra Pradesh has suffered at the rate of Rs 850 per day per lorry while the government has lost Rs 18.25 lakh per day that it collects as road toll and other cess.

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