The nationwide transporters' strike which entered the eighth day on Monday is causing a severe drain in the pockets of the general public with the prices of essential commodities like vegetables, fruits, eggs and meat products soaring.
Meanwhile, the All India Motor Transport Congress, which is heading the ongoing truckers' strike, has threatened to intensify the stir.
Fresh efforts were underway to break the deadlock between the government and agitating truckers in a bid to end the week-long transporters' strike.
With no solution in sight to the nationwide strike, the matter is likely to figure prominently in Parliament as prices of essential commodities have soared 30-50 per cent, and many industries fear closure for want of raw materials.
Hopes of an early end to the strike, which entered the eighth day on Monday, appeared dim with transporters rejecting a fresh appeal by the government to end the stir on Sunday.
"We have rejected the call given by the road transport ministry to end the stir as they first asked us to end the strike before coming to the negotiation table", AIMTC Secretary General J M Saksena said.
The truckers, demanding immunity from the proposed value-added tax regime, an end to frequent fluctuation in diesel prices and harassment by state and police authorities, have also been joined by small lorry and tempo owners.
Meanwhile, AIMTC, with 2.7 million trucks in its fold, has, however, decided to keep supply of essentials like milk and cooking gas out of the purview of the strike till Thursday.
Though the government has offered to consider a majority of its demands, the AIMTC is not going to call off the strike till the Centre gives a written assurance.
Even as the strike entered its eighth day on Monday, the transporters' body sought a written assurance from the government stating all its demands would be met.
It claimed the ministry of road transport and highways had offered to consider a majority of its demands, including the key issue of keeping the transport sector out of the purview of the value-added tax regime and a repeal of the ban on old trucks.
An AIMTC spokesperson said the president and office bearers of the body would sit on a dharna in New Delhi from Monday to press for their demands.
They said they were waiting for a communication from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for a meeting. However, till Monday morning, they had not received any.
The AIMTC issued a release on Saturday saying that the strike was on in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
Quoting a communication from the ministry of road transport, AIMTC secretary general J M Saksena said on Sunday that the government had no reservations on seven of the ten demands of the truckers.
"The government has agreed to repeal its orders junking 15-year-old trucks, rein in errant insurance companies and non-inclusion under VAT," Saksena said.
The other issues agreed to by the government include a ban on overloading, restructuring the national permits scheme, computerisation of driving licenses and registration books and amendments to the Carriers Act.
However, the government has not agreed to the demand for withdrawing the cess on diesel, disposing off the road toll on four-lane roads, exempting truck owners from paying excise duty on chassis and insulating truckers from frequent fluctuations in diesel prices.
"In view of the fact that there is no conflict (between the two of us) on most of the demands raised by the AIMTC, the minister (for road transport and highways, B C Khanduri) has requested that the strike be called off. This will enable us to have a more meaningful discussion," the communication said.
The strike has resulted in a rise in the prices of fruit and vegetables across the country. In addition, some companies are warning of a shortage of supplies from next week.
According to estimates, fruit and vegetables prices went up 30-50 per cent in various parts the country in spite of the measures taken by the state governments to ensure a steady supply of essential commodities.
Reports from states like West Bengal, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh suggest that the prices of essential commodities were rising constantly amid fears among consumers that supply of commodities like cooking gas and milk may be hampered.
The Assam government has asked the Railways to provide additional rakes on freight trains to augment supply in view of the truckers' strike.
The edible oils and poultry sectors have also been affected.
Cargo piles up at Mumbai port
The truckers' strike has led to import cargo piling up at the Mumbai Port. However, the movement of export cargo has been only marginally affected with operations being largely unaffected at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port.
At present, there are about ten ships docked at the Mumbai Port.
"The loading and unloading operations are continuing on these ships. Export cargo movement within the Port Trust premises has not been affected. However, not much of fresh export cargo is coming into the port. On the other hand, there has been an accumulation of import cargo as no trucks are available for taking this cargo outside the port premises," Saroj Tahiliani, secretary, Mumbai Port Trust, said.
Port Trust sources said they were allowing exporters to store cargo for about 30 days. Thus helping exporters arrange for trucks to facilitate the loading of the cargo well in advance.
"There has been little impact at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port as we use coastal shipping and rail and are not totally dependent on road transport," Bhaskara Rao, chief manager, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, said.
The truckers' strike has only affected bulk and container cargo as oil is carried by pipelines.
The Mumbai Port handled about 26.5 million tonne of cargo in 2002-03, of which about 16 million tonne consisted of petroleum, oil and lubricants.
Shipping industry sources said the strike would not have a major effect on the Mumbai Port as traffic was rapidly dwindling at the port in the last few years.
In the mid-nineties, the Mumbai port assumed pride of place among the 12 major ports in the country. However, it slid to sixth place in cargo handling due after private ports like Pipavav in Gujarat came up.
Moreover, the Kandla and Jawaharalal Nehru Ports too have managed to wean away a large part of the container traffic. Apart from oil products, the Mumbai Port is largely dependent on the movement of steel and project cargo.
Movement of essential supplies to be hit hard
The nationwide truck strike will hit the supply of essential commodities from Monday as truckers plan to stop the movement of daily items like milk, pharmaceuticals and cooking gas in West Bengal.
"We are appalled by the apathy shown by the government towards our demands. Given the situation, we have decided to stop the movement of essential commodities as well. Moreover, we have requested mini goods' vehicle owners to participate in the strike," Ashoke Das, organising secretary of the Truck Owners' Association of Bengal, said.
Till now, essential items had been kept outside the purview of the strike. Also, the intra-state movement of local produce like vegetables was unaffected.
With over 25,000 small commercial vehicles plying in the state, the prices of vegetables had not jumped appreciably even after a week of strike.
However, if these vehicles join the strike, local markets will be badly hit as supplies from other states have stopped completely.
"We were allowing local trucks to ply here. Some owners were also plying their vehicles because of financial compulsions. Now that we have explained the situation to them, more trucks are off roads," sources in the truckers' body said.
Meanwhile, reports suggested that export items were piling up at the Kolkata port and the various rail freight terminals. Large quantities of finished goods were also waiting to be shipped to various parts of the country.
Sources said if the strike continued for a couple of days more, industrial production would come to a halt leading to the closure of plants throughout the state.
The pharmaceutical industry has been affected the most. Traders had stopped picking up consignments a week before the present strike started as they were agitating against the valued-added tax.
The overlapping of the two strikes has come as a big blow to the industry. Though pharma companies are dispatching supplies by rail, they are not being unloaded at the freight terminals.
The construction industry is also facing a setback as the movement of raw materials has been affected.
'Our demands are not new'
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is a favourite of the All India Motor Transport Congress. As a leader in the National Front, he had helped resolve the truckers' strike in 1989 and 1992.
Since then the AIMTC has been striking on a regular basis. Their last all-India stir was in October 1999 against a diesel price hike. The strike had lasted seven days.
A split in their ranks -- the All India Truck Transport Federation had withdrawn from the strike -- had ended that stir. According to AIMTC members if that strike hadn't collapsed, this strike might not have been needed.
"Our demands are not new," J M Saksena, secretary-general, AIMTC, said.
What is the AIMTC and what sustains its will to strike repeatedly ?
An organisation of about 1,385 members spread all over India, the AIMTC likes to think of itself as a pressure group for truck owners and transporters. Its goal is to protect them against the actions of both the central and state governments.
It holds regular elections every two years, electing a 120-member managing committee from four zones. The representation from each zone is proportionate to the vehicles registered in that zone.
The president is elected from among the managing committee members on a rotational basis. The current incumbent, B S Dhumal, represents the western zones.
Trucking companies like Jaipur Golden, TCI and Sukhchain are members of AIMTC.
The body claims to represent about 60,00,000 trucks operating all over India.
AIMTC holds a general body meeting every three months. At this forum, state representatives come up with their problems. The meeting that authorised the current strike, for instance, had a record turnout.
In order that to sustain the strike and ensure that the government does not sabotage it, the managing committee drafted a number demands relating to both the state and central governments.
These include a demand that state governments, especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, follow the Motor Vehicles Act and do away with the 'Golden Pass' that permits trucks to operate despite being overloaded and is used by authorities to extort money.
The demand is as relevant to truck operators in north and south India as the demand aimed that the central government asking it to roll back the diesel cess.
However, there is no doubt that truckers are getting restive now.
Though the bigger groups can hold out longer, the smaller ones will have to face problems like paying wages to drivers, loaders and helpers.
Additional inputs: Business Standard