Indian truckers gain ground

INDIAN truck drivers, on strike against taxes and corrupt officials, scored their first victory yesterday when the authorities in Maharashtra, one of the country's main industrial states, agreed to their demands. Elsewhere the strike continued for a third day, driving up prices and causing panic buying in some places.

The road haulage industry, which carries 14.4 million tonnes of freight a day - almost half the total - has become increasingly incensed by the burden of octroi, a tax levied on the movement of goods across state boundaries, and path kar, a highway toll. A year ago the government persuaded truckers to halt a national strike, but went back on its promise to scrap the levies after meeting strong resistance from state governments, which earn about 21.8bn rupees ( pounds 470m) a year from them.

This time New Delhi has offered to abolish the taxes by Saturday if the drivers return to work, but the All-India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC) is refusing to give way until it sees action. 'We are not going to come out of this strike on mere promises,' said S P Singh, an AIMTC spokesman.

Queues of lorries at state border posts are a common sight in India. Tourists travelling the 20 miles (32km) between two of the country's main sights, the Taj Mahal and the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, find their progress slowed by jams at the checkpoint between Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan states. Drivers here and at other such posts say the formalities are often drawn out further by officials demanding bribes. Refusal to pay can result in delays lasting hours or even days.

While hundreds of trucks, their drivers sleeping or playing cards, were parked on the border between New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh this week, prices in the capital's food markets were rising sharply. 'Usually over 3,000 trucks come into this market each day, but since the strike we have had just 20 long-distance trucks come in,' said one trader. Some petrol stations in New Delhi ran dry after panic buying.

Beyond the hauliers' grievances, many argue that obstacles to the free movement of goods are inconsistent with the Congress government's policies of deregulating the economy. 'A truck that makes three trips a month from New Delhi to Bombay could make five if the checkposts were done away with,' said Mr Singh. 'Just imagine the resulting increase in transport efficiency and the benefit to trade and industry.'