Rising discontent hits all

Maratha, Truckers Stir

[ By Shivaji Sarkar ]

India is at the crossroads. The much-touted ‘development’ is there but the pace naturally is slow. As a result, societal discontent is growing. In the hullaballoo of political dramatics, the nation is ignoring two big agitations — truckers’ strike and the Maratha agitation.
While the Marathas for their unruly behavior, burning even fire engines, could get attention, the truckers putting their vehicles off the road have been lost sight of. Both the agitations are for economic reasons. Marathas, till the other day a most powerful social group, a status they still have not lost, are scrambling for 16 per cent of the reservation in government services.
Their grudge is not unfounded. Private sector is not creating jobs and the ones they get lack basic wages and respect for humanity. It is the Government alone which remains the model employer. On the other side, the truckers’ strike has disrupted supplies in many parts of the country. Their demands are genuine as they are finding it difficult to have even the minimum margins. Among other demands, they are asking for a cut in Central and State levies on diesel to make their operational costs affordable.
At the same time, they are demanding an end to “flawed and non-transparent” toll collection system that favours road concessioners as well as the fact that ‘time and fuel loss amounts to up to Rs 1.5 trillion annually at toll gates’. The automatic tags, claim the truck operators have not helped much either.
Truckers are also miffed at high insurance premiums and want a reduction in third-party premium and a GST exemption on third-party premia. This apart, they are also pressing for exemptions and abolition of indirect taxes, national permits for all trucks and buses and doing away with the direct port delivery tendering system.
Let us now look at Marathas, Jats, Gujars and other powerful groups, who had not joined the Mandal agitation in 1989. They are all farm-based agricultural communities. At that time they were satisfied that the system was taking care of them. But 30 years of globalised Manmohanomics has thrown the doors open for global players and the farmers have gone into a severe distress zone.
The Government is aware of it but is unable to look for a system that would give these groups relief. Higher MSP has not helped them either. Policies to increase farm production have led to a glut of wheat, sugar and pulses. Should they produce more and earn less? Today, the Government has also decided to open pulses stock in the market.
Obviously, this would lead to crash in prices. Note that sugar is also critical in the Indian and international markets. Farmers are not getting remunerative prices and government job-holder is clearly envy for them. So why not join the government and at least be assured of a minimum living standard, which farming is not giving them, is the question before them. Besides, loan-waivers are of least help to them. Why can’t the Government, Opposition, farmers and policy planners sit together to evolve workable system?
Similar is the issue with the truckers. They are the nation’s lifeline. If their work does not assure minimum income, it is not worth doing it. While farmers are suffering for apathy, the truckers are having problems of over-attention. Everyone considers it to be a lucrative business, so there are direct levies and indirect cuts by RTOs and other law enforcing agencies amounting to thousands of crores of fleecing.
So what they are demanding is logical. Insurance has become the biggest business and all the time they pressurise the government to allow them raising premium for virtually nothing. Even the farmers, it is now known, get less of insurance benefit and help insurance companies multiply their profits.
In addition, there still is a plethora of indirect taxes. The 2-rupee road cess on every litre of fuel has been replaced with Rs 8 per litre road and infrastructure cess on petrol and high-speed diesel. This was announced in the Budget 2018 and is to realise Rs 1.13 lakh crore. Plus, there is toll at almost every 20 km, which causes traffic jams, fuel and time loss, delays and puts a heavy burden on all.
When people are already paying Rs 1.13 lakh crore annually, which was about Rs 32,000 crore till 2017, why should there be a concessionaire to collect toll? And for whom are they collecting?
A sensible government needs to immediately abolish the toll. Not only does it fleece, but causes delays and given rise to a mafia, which triggers law and order problems. As per NHAI collection figures the tolls used to cost the nation approximately Rs 25,000 crore. So why is this huge inflationary levy?
The Government must consider doing away with it immediately for both political and economic reasons. Further, the NHAI expenses are not transparent, a point the truckers have repeatedly raised. This only means the tolls are bleeding the nation too.
Who does it affect? It hits the farmers, whose products, because of dual levies – fuel cess and tolls – become doubly expensive as also gives the truckers and farmers less margins. It hurts the consumers, who have to bear continuously an illegal tax. It does not help either the Central or State governments as they have to unnecessarily incur huge expenses to keep the toll gates brawl-free. The NHAI is on record that it does not receive more than one-third of the levies collected by concessionaires, which in effect means that it neither needs the tolls nor the concessionaires.
Importantly, the strike is said to cost over Rs 5,000 crore a day to the truckers. In addition manufacturers have been forced to shut down or cut production. It has disrupted supply of essential commodities, particularly vegetables, fruit and dairy products, which is affecting farmers. Many FMCG firms are also facing supply disruption and so also are online firms’ supplies hit. However, so far there is no move at Transport Bhavan in Delhi or in States.
It is time to give a serious thought to the fleecing levies being realised. The cess on fuel is itself inflationary. Levies such as tolls and GST almost on every tax, including house tax, defy logic. In 2014 polls, promises were made to do away with income-tax, road tolls and many other taxes. Except GST, which has subsumed central levies, most levies remain like that except States having changed their nomenclature.
Now it must be implemented. A toll-free highway journey is the right of the people after imposition of heavy Rs 8 per litre road cess. An affordable road travel will help all — the farmers, truckers and the people. The sooner it is done the better as it would lead to progress and development — the call of the hour.—INFA