Better and more training schools, please

Ramesh Kumar | January 28, 2015



Driver training institutes (DTIs) are essential to address the looming crisis of driver shortage. The question is who will train the drivers of the future. The government? The fleet owners? The trade bodies? The original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of heavy commercial vehicles (HCVs)? Common sense says it ought to be the collective responsibility of all these entities.

For reference, let us consider the chief competitor of road transport, the railways. Who trains the engine drivers of Indian Railways? The government, of course. The reason is not too far to seek. Right from the inception of railways, it was the means of troop movement under the British colonial rule. Railways was essential for the maintenance of law and order. Its role was comparable to that of the postal and
telegraphic services in the business of governance.

Road transport never received such limelight.

After India obtained independence from the colonial rulers, this mindset did not change, although the road transport sector was competing with railways by now. The Indian National Congress roped in transporters during the freedom movement. But after it rose to power in independent India, the party forgot about them. If at all, the road transport industry – be it private or commercial vehicles – prospered because of the resilience of Indian entrepreneurs, with little help from the authorities.

No government, however, missed the opportunity to milk from this sector that was growing by leaps and bounds – at the centre or in the states. The railways kept losing ground to road transport since independence; its share was around 80% in 1947, which is down to less than 30% today. The dominance of road transport is complete. All this is happening with no attention spared to building the core team of drivers to ‘drive’ these machines. Nobody bothered to find out where and how to source drivers, how to train them, and how to manage them as an essential part of the country’s mobility plan. Drivers were not seen as a human resource. Even today, there is a great emphasis on building roads but scant attention on training drivers.

Of late, everyone is waking up to the reality of driver shortage. As a result, an increasing number of DTIs are being set up. Tata, Leyland, Eicher and some others have jumped into the fray. Again, this is out of compulsion. Today, when a potential buyer of an HCV meets a sales or marketing executive of a company that manufactures and sells HCVs, he inevitably asks: “Truck, I am ready to buy. Can you arrange a driver, please?” OEMs are under pressure to take on this additional responsibility.

How good are these DTIs? Do they attract fresh blood, making truck driving look like an attractive and viable career choice? Yes and no.

I recently visited the Navada driver training institute, managed by the Volvo Eicher Commercial Vehicles Company; on the outskirts of Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. I was pleasantly surprised to witness a classroom of 30-odd high-school pass-outs from farmer families.

They were taking a 30-day paid-up residential course in all aspects of truck driving. Yes, I can confirm that they consider this new profession a path to a better future. Navada is one of the leading fleet owners in Andhra Pradesh. The company conducts such rigorous, full-time courses for their own drivers. This is clearly the best route.

In Ajmer there is a driver training facility of IL&FS, which is supported by Tata Motors. The Rajasthan government is deputing aspiring automotive mechanics and drivers from across the state to this facility for a full-term training course. Again, all paid up; in this case by the government. Ashok Leyland has its own institutes at Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, Burari in Delhi, and Kathul in Haryana, among others. Under the ASDC banner, several efforts are underway to create a reservoir of trained drivers for all kinds of ends – drivers for taxis, private cars, buses and trucks – in the shortest possible time. “The demand is endless,” says Sunil Chaturvedi of ASDC.

One part of this is down to the advent of global majors such as Volvo, Daimler and Scania. Their vehicles sport a higher level of on-board sophistication. Driving a truck is no longer a plain-vanilla activity; no longer is it limited to the rigmarole of inserting the key, turning on the engine, and getting going. Be they manufactured by Tata, Leyland, Mahindra, Eicher or any other company, today’s trucks demand a higher set of skills. There is a lot more reading, a lot more writing, a lot more arithmetic. Such abilities are required of drivers now; given the higher value of such trucks, there is greater willingness to attract and train a more responsible set of drivers, who can be entrusted with more expensive machinery. This is attracting an educated lot of aspiring drivers, even from the hinterland.

The living and working conditions of drivers still need upgradation from the wayside amenities present in patches. Driving on the highway needs to be freed of countless hassles. Will the rollout of GST enable this? One certainly hopes, for the sake of truck drivers, if nobody else. This is an area where the central and state governments need to join cause, because transport is a state. And transport is a milch cow for the government in terms of revenue.

Above all, it is churlish on all our parts to ignore the challenge of driver shortage as the problem for HCV manufacturers and fleet owners only. Actually, mobility of our nation is at stake. While manufacturers need buyers for their vehicles; the fleet owners require sellers of vehicles. The pertinent question is: whom do these fleets serve? Almost every citizen requires some goods or items which are manufactured at some distance from them. From supplying raw material to manufacturers to carting the final product across to the consumer. This is the age of outsourcing; nothing is done under one roof now. The future has multiple locations.

Moving both raw materials and finished products requires transportation, which requires trucks, which require drivers. Trained and responsible men behind the wheel. Transportation is viewed as a barometer of economic growth. You take out the drivers and there are no trucks; you take out the trucks and there is no economic growth. Period.

A shortage of trained drivers is not a tsunami that happens once in a while. It exists all the time in the shape of disguised unemployment. It is all pervasive and needs to be addressed in all seriousness. Otherwise it will cripple our economy and our country.

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