6 Jan : Hardening its stand against strike by truck operators, the govt on Tuesday said the states have been asked to deal with the situation firmly, including impounding of trucks, if needed, while it has roped in the Railways to transport essential commodities on top priority.
"We won’t give up this time. Our contingency plan is already in place. The Railways has assured to transport essential commodities on top priority to avoid any inconvenience to the commoners," Transport Secretary Brahma Dutt told reporters in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Claiming that the state governments had already been asked to crack a whip against striking transporters and act under the provisions of Essential Commodities Act and National Security Act, the Secretary said if needed, trucks would be impounded and pressed into service.
"Under NSA, the state governments have powers to impound trucks and ply through hired drivers. They have also been advised to allow private vehicles to be used for transport services and offer other relaxations to facilitate transportation of commodities," he added.
The Secretary categorically denied total exemption from service tax as demanded by the All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC).
"We have already offered major relaxations. There is no question of extending total exemption as the tax system was implemented after consulting the truckers’ body and taking their advice," he said.
He also ruled out relaxation in toll taxes, claiming that the government had already rolled back rates in July last year."We rolled back the rates to December 2007 level, and it is still effective," the Secretary said.
While claiming that barring a few states, the strike had little impact across the country, the Secretary said that majority of the demands raised by the AIMTC were unjustified.
"The Government had fulfilled its commitment by adhering to its agreement with the AIMTC made in July last year. Now they are ready with a fresh demand list. This is sheer blackmail and the government will not buckle this time," he said.
Regarding truckers demand of reduction in diesel prices, he said that any consideration would be done by the Petroleum Ministry.
"We had already advised the truckers’ body to meet the Petroleum Ministry officials, which they didn’t. It’s not the government’s fault. Any decision is taken keeping in mind the larger public interest. We cannot work as per the whims and fancies of the transporters," he asserted.
The Secretary said that as of now, the strike had only partial impact, and claimed that only 40 percent trucks were off the road.
"Long-distance trucks are plying and the states have been asked to ensure security of such vehicles," he added.
Pointing out that the impact was major in the southern states, including Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, he said there was little or no impact elsewhere, including UP, Bihar, Punjab Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and North-eastern states.
"States have already started cracking a whip against the truckers. Maharashtra Government has issued an order terming the strike as illegal," he added.
Day Two: Trucks off the road, signs of panic buying appear
Truckers stayed off the road for the second day on Tuesday, demanding lower diesel prices and permit fee, squeezing supplies of essential commodities that gave way to panic buying across markets.
Incoming traffic in the national capital’s Azadpur mandi, Asia’s largest wholesale vegetables market, was a notch lower than usual an indication that only vehicles that were already loaded are coming in, traders said.
The government has threatened to invoke the Essential Services Maintenance Act if the strike is not called off soon and also cancel permits granted to truckers.
Prices of essentials such as vegetables have not gone up as of now, but could surge if the strike continues.
"Only 90-95 trucks came in today against the usual 100-120 and the supplies were sold with speed," Azadpur Onion and Potato Merchants’ Association President Trilokchand Sharma said, adding there were signs of panic buying.
Think-tank NCAER’s senior fellow Rajesh Shukla said inflation could shoot up by 50 basis points if the strike continues for three-four days.
"We will continue the strike till there is a favourable response from the government. LPG and oil transporters have also joined the strike," Bombay Goods Transport Association General Secretary Girish Agrawal told a news agency in Mumbai.
"We are willing to surrender our licences," he retorted to the government’s threat of cancelling permits.
AIMTC, the umbrella body with over 4,000 affiliated unions, called the strike to demand lower diesel prices and permit fee and exemption from service tax among other things.
The Finance Ministry on Monday exempted eight services provided by sub-contractors to transporters from payment of service tax.