You must have read or seen visuals on the news of the Central government’s much-vaunted Oxygen Express trains. But it’s the drivers transporting massive tankers and, subsequently, smaller trucks carrying oxygen cylinders, who ensure oxygen is delivered to the doorstep of various hospitals.
Mohammed Azeem, a truck driver in his early 40s, performs the critical task of delivering 180 cylinders of oxygen to various government hospitals across Hyderabad on a daily basis.
Like many of his colleagues, Azeem risks deliveries through containment zones, lockdowns and even battles exhaustion to perform this essential service on a basic salary of Rs 19,600 per month. Working over 12 hours a day, drivers like him enter hospital premises and eat at outside dhabas (eateries), which naturally increases their chances of exposure to COVID-19. Despite taking these risks, they aren’t considered ‘frontline workers’.
“My work day starts at 6.30 am, and I come back home around 6.30 pm, making two trips from an oxygen filling station in Pashamylaram, a small township 50 km from the city, to different government hospitals across Hyderabad covered under the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC). Oxygen to filling stations in Pashamylaram come in tankers from Puducherry. I transport 90 oxygen cylinders with each trip. Sometimes, I get the evening shift, starting my day at around 1 pm and coming back home past midnight,” says Azeem, speaking to The Better India.
On certain days, there are long distance back and forth trips to Mahbubnagar, which is over 100 km one way, and the city of Bidar in neighbouring Karnataka, which is about 150 km one way. He drives a 10-wheeler tanker truck carrying oxygen and other emergency supplies to different hospitals, and this has been the case since February 2021.
In the transport business since 1999, Azeem began his career as a bus driver working on a contract basis for the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) ferrying passengers from Hyderabad to Mumbai, Vashi, Pune and Solapur, making at least four to five trips a month back and forth. While working, he also earned his Bachelor’s degree.
After working nearly three years as a truck driver for a government department, he found work as a bus driver at IIT-Hyderabad for about a decade before he was laid off when the first lockdown was announced in March 2020. “Thankfully, there was a vacancy at JFK Transporters, a Pune-based logistics company. After getting the necessary permits and certificates to drive a 10-wheeler truck, a one-month training programme and the medical clearance, I finally began driving for JFK in April 2020,” says Azeem.
Asked about major difficulties he has to overcome, and he talks about encountering traffic jams outside the city, but then says, “overcoming all sorts of challenges is our duty”. He believes that whatever the obstacles before him, the objective is to overcome them. “Sometimes the police stop us, but upon seeing what our truck is carrying, they let us go without too much hassle because they understand the urgency of our duty,” he adds.
What about his family? Aren’t they scared about what may happen to him in these times?
“There are obvious risks in driving these trucks irrespective of the pandemic hanging over our heads. When things go well, you won’t hear a peep about truck drivers like us. But when there is a road accident with someone either injured or dead, no matter the context, the blame often falls on us. There are no guarantees that I’ll return home safely after a day’s work. In some ways, we are like army soldiers, who also don’t have guarantees that they’ll return home alive after serving the country on the border. I’ve seen many tragedies on the road during my 22 years in the transport business, but that’s the nature of our work,” he explains.
Supporting Truck Drivers Like Azeem
Responding to concerns of drivers like Azeem, HumSafer Driver Safety Foundation, a Pune-based non-profit which runs an app to facilitate safer operating conditions for truck drivers and reduce their involvement in road accidents, started its #DriveForOxygen initiative. This initiative aims to support 4,000 HAZ-certified drivers (transporting hazardous materials) that clock over 12 hours to supply oxygen across various parts of the country.
“Presently, there are only 2,000 oxygen containers in India, and 4,000 HAZ certified drivers who can drive these vehicles. The problem we currently face is not just a shortage in production but more so, in the last mile. India faces dire straits without appropriate help and support to all parts of the mechanics. #DriveForOxygen is a donation drive whose proceeds will help elevate them to essential workers and provide them with incentives, healthcare, vaccinations and COVID-19 insurance coverage for them and their families,” claims the HumSafer Foundation, in a recent press release.
This drive is being conducted in partnership with Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Uplift Mutual, Nudge Foundation, Live to Give and JFK Transporters. So far, this initiative has raised over Rs 8.5 lakhs, which has benefited about 100 drivers, it claims. Meanwhile, the app provides truck drivers with safety tools and real-time interventions in their local languages that helps avoid any fatigue or chances of meeting with any accident. The app also helps them stay connected with family and other members of the trucking community.
“We launched the drive as we realised the shortfall we are headed towards, if this gap is not addressed. Even a 5 per cent increase in efficiency of our supply chain will result in an additional 300 tonnes of oxygen supply and will benefit 2,700 extra lives. Our efforts towards this largely marginalised community will not stop with this drive,” claims HumSafer Co-founder Jehaan Kotwal. As his fellow co-founder Sumedh Mane adds, “We also aim to equip drivers with resources that will enable them to grow financially and make them prosperous. We hope that this drive will shine some light on their predicament.”
The bottomline remains that these drivers travel long distances and work tirelessly to deliver life-supporting gas at the earliest. In fact, last year, the All India Motor Transport Congress (AITC), an apex organisation of transporters, demanded that the Centre consider tanker drivers as frontline workers, covering them under insurance and prioritising their vaccination.
Unfortunately, according to this report in The Telegraph, the proposal was rejected. These drivers work up to 15 hours a day with negligible breaks. Since this proposal was made, their work pressure has increased manifold. It’s imperative they receive State support as well.
(Click on this page to support #DriveForOxygen initiative.)
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)