National Highway 334, near Bulandshahr: Rasheed Khan is eating in complete silence. It is, after all, his first meal in over 30 hours. Only once he finishes his meal does the Jammu native start to talk about how demonetisation has affected him. “I left Kanpur for Jammu on Saturday morning. The last time I had a meal was on the outskirts of Kanpur. My next meal came on Sunday, after driving over 500 km. No place is willing to accept Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes and that is all I have, besides some change which I do not want to use. I have a long journey ahead,” he says.
Khan is not alone. TOI spoke to truck drivers on Bulandshahr-Haridwar NH 334, all of whom are worried about being cashless on the highway. Some say their money is running out between cups of tea and bribes to cops while others are anxious about what they would do if their truck breaks down.
“I left my home in Jammu seven days ago – with a bundle of Rs 500 notes which were legal currency at the time. While I was driving to Kanpur, the announcement came that my money was nothing more than pieces of paper. I thought my contractor in Kanpur would be able to give me change, but even he said he didn’t have any. I think he was lying. Luckily, petrol pumps are still taking the old currency and the toll is free. I think I can get this consignment to Jammu before the toll exemption lifts, but I don’t know what will happen after that,” says Sanjay Kumar, who is driving his truck alongside Khan’s on their 1,100 km-long journey from Kanpur to Jammu.
With the economy being cash-strapped, most of India’s small towns have fallen back on barter and good faith. But for truckers, who spend most of their days on the move, “good faith” is a luxury. “Most of the people we interact with, except for contractors and other truck drivers, are strangers to us. It’s not like I’m going to my neighbourhood grocer who is fine with me paying him later. When I stop at a dhaba to eat something or stop at a mechanic’s shop for minor repairs, I can’t tell him that I’ll pay later. Why would he trust a stranger? That’s why we are so vulnerable,” Khan says.
Ram Avtar Singh from Rampur says Madhuri, a name he has given to his beloved truck, has served him well so far. But he is fearful that if “she” breaks down at any point during his 1,300-km journey to Ahmedabad, he will be stranded for hours, or maybe days. “I was worried about cash, but my contractor gave me a Rs 2,000 note. Unfortunately, someone picked my pocket at a dhaba and I lost the note. Now I am left with mostly old currency notes in my truck, except a few Rs 100 notes. I am trying to save money for emergencies, so I have not eaten much. Since I’ve left Rampur, I’ve only had one cup of tea and a cream roll. Maybe I will eat something once I cross Jaipur. We need to have cash in hand for emergencies. That is why I hope the government can fix this mess soon.”
While most of the country is lining up outside banks to withdraw and deposit cash, truckers say that, too, is a luxury for him. Singh says, “We are on the move all the time. We don’t go home for weeks. If we stop at a bank for four hours, our day is gone and we will miss our delivery schedule. When is the time for standing in lines?”
Meanwhile, the waiter tells Khan and Kumar that they owe Rs 185. Kumar tries a shot in the dark and asks the waiter if he will accept a Rs 500 note, but he is turned down. He pulls out Rs 200 and pays for them both. Ask them when their next meal will be and Khan says, “See we have Rs 175 left between the two of us. That should be enough for one meal. Maybe we will stop at Rajpura in Punjab and eat.”
Rajpura is still over 300 km away for the both of them. Alexander Burmistrov Jersey