Page last updated at 17:34 GMT, Tuesday, 1 July 2008 18:34 UK

Fuel price forces India's truck drivers off road

By Shilpa Kannan
BBC India Business Report

Truck in India
Fuel subsidies have been cut in India, pushing up costs

The day begins early for truck driver Raj Kumar, 36.

Driving a cargo truck around the country, he has spent more than 10 years on the roads.

The hours are long and the work is unregulated, but without drivers like him India would come to a complete standstill as they transport more than 70% of the country's goods.

As Mr Kumar drives from Delhi to Mumbai, carrying barrels of tar for road construction, his journey comes to a standstill just outside the city's limits.

At Delhi's border with neighbouring state Haryana, there are long queues of trucks waiting for clearance.

These check-posts are meant to monitor the flow of goods from one state to another, but the more the number of check posts the longer the delay and larger the wastage.

There are simply too many trucks and too little work now
Truck operator Somnath Mehta

Just to travel from Delhi to Mumbai, the truckers have to cross at least five different state borders, resulting in five times the delays and paperwork.

Mr Kumar is angry.

"The truck owners want you to reach from one city to another on time. How can we guarantee that?" he cries.

"The roads are terrible. There are traffic jams that last for hours. We get stopped repeatedly by officials for all kinds of checks. My pay gets cut if I don't reach [my destinations] on time."

Too many trucks

At Delhi's transport hub, Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar, thousands of small and medium truck owners have set up shop.

Sitting on a grimy platform, truck operator Somnath Mehta is counting the toll taxes paid by his drivers.

Just between Delhi and Mumbai , a single truck pays almost $150 of taxes.

Mr Mehta runs a fleet of 100 trucks that are used to transport industrial goods.

But over the past year, business has been slow. He has been losing customers to the railways freight service.

"There are simply too many trucks and too little work now," he says.

"I spend over 40 % of my income on fuel. If we raise our charges, we will lose customers to the railways. If we don't, we will make a loss."

Costly fuel

Mr Mehta is one of four million truckers who have gone off the Indian roads in an indefinite strike to protest against rising fuel bills.

Trucks in India
India's truck drivers struggle to make money

The soaring global price of crude oil has forced the Indian government to cut subsidies and raise prices.

Truckers have been hit hard by oil prices which have risen by roughly 40% since the start of the year.

A similar week-long strike in 2004 slowed down the annual growth in industrial output to 7.9% from 8.4% in the previous month as the strike disrupted shipments.

Vital supplies

Charan Singh Lohara of the All India Motor Transport Congress insists truck drivers "have no choice but to stay off the roads.

"We are already running under huge losses. The cost of diesel is so high that we have nothing left to live on. The government must reduce the multiple taxes to compensate for the increasing cost of fuel."

Back at the state's border, Raj Kumar has no choice but to fill up to keep his truck going.

As these drivers get ready to take their trucks off the roads, the vital supply of food and fuel for Indian consumers could be threatened.

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