Notes from India’s State Border Highways: Changing Rules, Institutional Corruption and Hoping for Too Much from GST

This essay looks at institutionalised corruption and its effect on Indian roadways, especially the Golden Quadrilateral. Despite higher speeds, delays of crossing states borders nullifies gains from speed. Will the goods and services tax change things?

For the first time in a month on Indian roads, I could hear my own breathing during the day in a truck’s cabin. With the hustle and bustle of Kolkata behind us, Soumik, the truck driver, concentrated on the well-paved, four-lane Golden Quadrilateral highway while he stole glances at the dipping sun. We were cruising at 45 kilometres (km) per hour and approximately 15 km away from the Odisha border, our destination; but Lokesh, Soumik’s assistant, repeatedly checked his Chinese digital watch. 

“We are almost at the Odisha border. You will have enough time to submit papers to the border custom officials. Why are you worried so much?” I asked them. I might as well have been asking the water-filled rice farms, shoe-less, head-load carrying, semi-naked populace walking like ants along the edge of the road, or the Bay of Bengal—the vast expanse of open sea—beyond the rice farms. Soumik and Lokesh kept quiet and remained lost in their thoughts of making it to the Odisha border.

After a while, our truck joined a mile-long queue of parked trucks. I had visions of being stuck in that spot for several sultry days, but Soumik smiled for the first time in six hours. It was a bright hot day in September 2010, he still had an hour to give cargo receipts to a clearing agent, and obtain permission to cross into Odisha. He called Jayant, the clearing agent who, for a fee, was to submit papers to the border officials on his behalf. While he waited for Jayant, I decided to look for a tea stall in a bit to escape the mosquitoes and flies that had begun to invade our stuffy truck cabin. 

I was not the only one looking for something. A “medicine man” with a hunched back, a long white beard dyed in henna, carrying stashes of medicine bottles that were arranged in his grey dilapidated briefcase, peddled cures for eczema, piles, and impotency. An earwax cleaner, wearing a stainless-steel needle in his hair on top of the red cap of his profession, slouched, searching for clients. A barber had set up a makeshift shop under a tree. A cracked mirror, an assortment of haircut and shaving tools, and a few pairs of unused Topaz blades hung from the tree trunk. After some time, I found a teacart surrounded by a dozen men, all shielding the tops of their glasses by hand to prevent ingesting dust that enveloped everything–shop counters, humans, cows, and washed tea glasses. 

***

Everything at the border was the way it was when I saw it four days ago on the way to Kolkata; except the rules. Last time an agent had stood in line for the truck driver, given relevant papers to the border officials, and received permissions to come into Bengal from Odisha. Now, after the change in rules, Soumik had to stand in a queue after eight hours of an arduous drive, and submit his own papers. As the bright sun hid behind monsoon clouds, the happiness on Soumik’s face was eclipsed.

The border check-post had always existed but there were fewer trucks on this road before completion of the four-lane highway a few months back. The bureaucrats—policemen and customs officials—were content with whatever little they made.

Now, with the new four-lane highway, the queues of trucks, like the banjara oxen caravans from the 19th century, stretched all the way along the 1,000-mile long east coast from Kolkata to Chennai.

With serious money at stake, border officials could not allow Jayant and other local agents to haggle forever. Sometime between 31 August and 3 September in 2010, the border officials decreed that the truck drivers had to stand in queues and submit their own cargo receipts and permits. 

However, the change in rules did not bring in the results that the officials had hoped for. The diktat just changed the hagglers. Agents helped drivers in getting their papers in order, and armed with the knowledge that they had no missing or wrong documents, now the drivers bargained instead of the agents. Clearly, this was not what the border officials wanted. When a six-foot tall north-Indian driver insisted on paying Rs 200 instead of Rs 500 that was demanded of him, the police’s patience finally gave in. Furious, at the insubordination of a driver—clearly their inferior in their eyes—they thrashed him with a baton, and broke his leg. 

Legally, the driver owed nothing, but that is not how the policemen and other officials facilitate highway traffic. They can even claim to follow a hoary tradition: whoever commanded the road in India—a eunuch gang, a foreign imperialist, a local bully—took his share without rendering any service in return. Police and other border officials were the beggars, the local lords, and the thugs, all rolled into one—they merely substituted private gain for the public tribute.

The fate of the north-Indian driver did not trouble the police: He could do nothing, except writhe in pain and hope for sympathy from other truck drivers. But Jayant and the other local agents couldn’t be swept aside. They wanted to use the incident to blackmail the police to change the rules, to allow them to represent the drivers once again. To exert pressure, they stood on the highway and called their friends and families (who lived nearby) to enforce a road blockade. 

Truckers—the lifeline of Indian economy—were non-entities, but the flow of local cars and buses could not be dammed. When I rushed to the spot, a crowd of over 500 huddled at the border. Some truck drivers parked in the middle of the road, freezing all traffic on the eastern wing of the Golden Quadrilateral, touted to be India’s most prestigious highway system.

Some agents hopped between drivers, inciting them, and reminding them of daily humiliations. 

"Tum sala hijra hai. Tumhara bhai danda kha kar pada hai aur tum sala yaha khada hai."
(“Are you a eunuch? You stand here while your brother is beaten.”)

Sensing a strong whiff of belligerence in the air, the officials confined the “guilty” policeman inside a safe compound. Agents, their friends, and their families shouted slogans demanding justice and threatened to keep the border closed until the policeman was punished. Their representatives, in plain view, somberly negotiated with senior border officials. Travellers and truck drivers descended onto the tea, samosa, and pakoda pushcarts that had materialised from nowhere. Children, who were strangers to one another till about an hour ago, now played in small groups. Women passengers sat on the roadside next to the bus and sang folk songs. Male passengers gathered in small groups. 

***
A month earlier, after braving numerous border crossings I was at the Haryana border from Punjab. Our papers were in order; it took border agents eight hours to get to inspect our papers. With 29 states, seven union territories, and countless cities where truckers have to halt, there are borders everywhere. 

India is unlike other countries in the world in its geographic distribution: its metropolitan cities, farming lands, and natural resources lie scattered from each other. Though India is only about 40% of the United States (US) in area, its major centres of population and economy are farther from each other than they are in the latter. Unlike the US, whose main population and economic centres are located on its coasts, it is over 2,000 km from Mumbai to Kolkata and 1,500 km from Mumbai to Delhi. From Chennai to Delhi it is another 2,200 km. Foodgrains travel hundreds of miles to feed urban dwellers. Coal and iron moves from Bengal–Bihar on the east coast to Mumbai and Gujarat on the west coast, where major manufacturing is located. However, unlike US that built highways and railways to connect its disparate land masses through the wilderness, Indian politicians followed the lead of their predecessors. Like sultans, kings, and the British before them, they never built supply lines.

Highway to Corruption

I am glad I did not listen to my friend who suggested that carrying a GPS device to record trips on Indian highways was pointless. I had only asked him where I could buy a GPS device. “What is there to know? Everyone knows that the four-lane highways are faster,” he had said. I am glad I stuck to my training as an engineer. The numbers told me things that I would have never known even after the three-month long all-India trip. Now I knew whether the Golden Quadrilateral was an improvement for truck drivers or not.  

My friend was not wrong in assuming that the four-lane highways were faster. GPS data indicated that buses, trucks, and cars zipped at twice the speeds on these highways. But the failings did not arise from the Golden Quadrilateral system, the hardware. The “software”—the rules and regulations and the enforcement—was riddled with bugs and viruses.

The bureaucrats nullified the gains of a superior system of four-lane and six-lane highways built at a cost of $5.3 billion. Scheduled stops at the state and city borders and arbitrary police and RTO stops to extract bribes took most of the time of the drivers. In the 2,500-km long Vijayawada–Kolkata roundtrip, one stop, the Odisha–Bengal border, alone took more than 20 hours. While Europe has done away with the international borders between 27 countries, in India the domestic state borders are more difficult to navigate than the borders between warring nations. The borders served no purpose; no one checked trucks for anything at the borders, nothing really happened. The long stops just served one purpose: to frustrate truckers, to make them pay the gatekeepers for the privilege of passing through.

I travelled in a bus on the Golden Quadrilateral from Bengaluru to Hubli, where the highway construction was still on, from Hubli to Mumbai, Jaipur to Bhilwara, and from Shahpura near Jaipur to Delhi, routes lying in both North and South India. The speeds on the Golden Quadrilateral were twice (53 km per hour) than speeds on other highway (28 km per hour). The reason that buses could maintain high speeds even when they crossed state borders was that they did not have to stop at those borders. 

The trucks travelled faster as well. Police did not stop us when we travelled from Bengaluru to Hubli. As Both the cities are in Karnataka, we did not have to cross a border. We averaged 41 km per hour including stop times for breakfast, prayer break of Kamath for an hour in a Hanuman temple, and time to fill diesel. But when the bureaucrats stopped Soumik and Lokesh at Odisha and Andhra Pradesh borders, our speeds dropped to 20 km per hour. 

Trucks travelled faster and were safe on the Golden Quadrilateral, and thus volumes of trucks on these highways were higher. Instead of hunting in vast oceans police could choke some bottlenecks and get all their money. Always strategic, the police focused efforts on collections on these highways, and queues of trucks stretched into miles.

With the increase in trade and better highways, the institutional corruption is the biggest hindrance to the trade in India. According to the 2001 India Infrastructure Report[i], a truck in India travelled 280 km per day, even when truck drivers drove all their waking hours. International norm was 600 to 800 km per day when they worked for eight hours. On the Golden Quadrangle, I found that if borders and authorities did not stop them, the drivers covered 550 km in 24 hours. Truckers spent more than half their time waiting at toll plazas, state borders, and enforced halts. Transparency International[ii] estimated bribe to be ₹80,000 per truck per year a decade ago. It may easily be twice the amount now.

Now that the goods and services tax is a reality, Soumik and Lokesh should no longer have to stop to pay custom duties or any other taxes. The officials should have no reason to stop them at the borders. They need not rush to be on time on the border. They need not line up in queues half the time they are on the road. They may make some more money or they may finally get some rest. The number of accidents could reduce. Since truckers like them transport almost 80% of the goods within the country, consumers in Tamil Nadu may get fresh vegetables from Punjab.  However, it would be interesting to see how the officials recoup their lost income. 

Notes

[i] Network with input from IIT Kanpur and IIM Ahmedabad, India Infrastructure Report 2001, Issues in Regulation and Market Structure, Oxford University Press, New Delhi

[ii] Marketing and Development Research Associates (MDRA) for Transparency International India, Corruption in Trucking Operations in India, 2006, page 12

Image Courtesy: Pixabay under Creative Commons 

 

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