No one has been thinking of us until now

Traffic in India has boomed parallel to its economic growth. This has put already congested roads under further pressure and led to a deterioration in road safety. Targeting truck drivers through an unorthodox partnership, Maersk has put down a small bet, aiming to make a big impact.

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Mahua Chatterjee of ‘The Truck Driver’s Motivational Project’ speaks to truck driver Prasad Malhotra. “Many new drivers are illiterate and don’t know the traffic laws,” he says.

Statistically, Prasad Malhotra’s accident was just waiting to happen. After 26 years in a truck on India’s roads, his number was up and he was very close to becoming one of the 231,000 traffic related deaths that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), haunt India every year.

The drama arose when an oncoming car began swerving. Seconds later, it collided head-on with Malhotra’s truck.

“I was knocked senseless, but thanks to a miracle, I survived,” Malhotra, aged 46, recalls of the accident that, four years down the road, still sits at the back of his mind whenever he gets into his truck.

Uninsured, like the vast majority of India’s 2.5 million truck drivers, Malhotra was unlikely to have received any medical treatment for the injuries that he inexplicably dodged. Many of his colleagues have not been as lucky, he admits.

Better road safety
Parallel to its growing economy, India’s traffic has increased and road safety has deteriorated. More and more people are being killed in road accidents and according to the WHO, the associated economic losses – estimated at 1–3% of GDP – are likely to increase unless investments to improve road safety are made.

According to a Maersk study, the Indian business community often cites inland infrastructure as the single biggest hindrance for doing business and this is why better road safety is one of Maersk’s main priorities.

At the heart of the problem, and of the solution, are the truck drivers. Learning-by-doing is the entry ticket to this unorganised and vulnerable group, whose workdays easily exceed 18 hours. Now they are the target of an ambitious three-year programme for change funded by Maersk.

“Our own business is linked to the hinterlands and the safe movement of containers, so it makes sense for us to support the drivers and address this industry-related issue. We are in this for the long haul,” says Julian Bevis, a senior director with the Maersk Group in India.

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Many truck drivers start young and lead unhealthy lifestyles. ‘The Truck Driver’s Motivational Project’ aims to motivate the drivers to improve their lives.

India’s infrastructure challenge

  • ‘Unlocking growth in India’ is the title of a study the Maersk Group has carried out, identifying how reducing the hidden costs of trade can drive further growth in India.
  • According to the study, the Indian business community often cites inland infrastructure as the single most important hindrance to doing business.
  • The study furthermore states that reducing the costs of trade by 10% has the potential to generate additional exports of up to 5–8%.
  • The Maersk Group has entered talks with industry and government stakeholders in order to identify prioritised focus areas, in which it can channel its initiatives and efforts.

Maersk in India has been involved in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities for years, with business units taking local initiatives. When legislation was passed requiring companies based in India to spend 2% of profits on CSR activities, Maersk decided to take a strategic approach, targeting projects in areas related to its own business.

The first phase of the project, involving 3,000 drivers, was carried out from May to September. The second phase targets 25,000 drivers as well as truck owners, police and authorities, pushing for fair wages and a fair working environment for the drivers. Documenting activities and social impact over the course of three years, the aim is to create a model project that can be replicated across India.

“With the right approach, we are confident that we will be able to make an impact,” says Julian Bevis.

The truck driver’s own decision

A Kolkata based non-governmental organisation (NGO), Seva Kendra, is running the initiative called ‘The Truck Driver’s Motivational Project’.

“Our first goal is to motivate truck drivers to take better care of themselves,” says Mahua Chatterjee, a project coordinator with Seva Kendra.

Chatterjee is also working on a Ph.D. in social psychology and is keenly aware of the fact that change comes from within.

“We cannot change people, but they can modify their own behaviour. In that sense, we are not doing any favours, we are only helping. We can motivate them, but any change is ultimately their own decision.”

During a half hour session near the port in Kolkata, Chatterjee and her colleagues walk roughly 30 drivers crammed into a small room through various aspects of the project, all revolving around improvements that they can make to their own lives and road safety. The meetings have been going on for months and the drivers listen with keen interest.

An industry approach
Devandra Singh has been a truck owner for 27 years and is a firm supporter of the initiative:

“Drivers make this business, so what is good for the drivers is good for the owners. It is also good to have an outside party involved. They can engage with drivers and owners in a way that an insider cannot. Now we just hope that this is a sustainable project. Too many NGOs have come and gone,” he says.

Stakeholders across the board point to industry effort as the only feasible route to change. Individual players can only make small improvements in an environment that is racing towards the bottom. For the industry as a whole and the country, however, the business case is crystal clear.

Many truck drivers start young and find it hard to leave, unable to find other employment. Thus, apart from escaping his accident unharmed, Prasad Malhotra’s story is a common one, getting behind the wheel when he was only 16, he was drawn by a macho lifestyle he had seen on TV. Reality turned out to be less glamorous and lonelier. This is why he appreciates The Truck Driver’s Motivational Project:

“No one has been thinking about us until now.”