Indian truck drivers go on strike

Tens of thousands of truckers stay off the roads after talks with officials to cut taxes and diesel prices break down.

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MUMBAI // Tens of thousands of truckers stayed off the roads today after talks with Indian officials to cut taxes and diesel prices broke down, threatening to push up prices of food and commodities across the country. "We are on an indefinite strike until our demands are met," said Charan Singh Lohara, the president of the All India Motor Transport Congress, which says it represents six million lorries across the country.

"The government is giving concessions and bailout packages to so many industries. Why not us, when we are struggling to repay loans with high fuel prices, high prices of tyres and numerous taxes," he said. More than 70 per cent of freight in India moves by road, and truckers had benefited from a booming economy that required the transport of steel and cement, as well as an improving network of highways that encouraged demand for lorries.

But the country's 200,000 transport companies have been hit in recent months by a slowing economy, higher interest rates on vehicle loans and greater competition from the railways. Sales of lorries and buses at Tata Motors, India's top vehicle maker, fell by more than half in December from a year ago. "How can we compete when our costs are so high," Mr Lohara said. India cut prices of petrol and diesel on Dec 8 after crude oil tumbled, but the economy, Asia's third largest, has shown palpable signs of slowing amid a global financial crisis, after growing at nine per cent or more in the past three years.

Economists and government advisers expect expansion to moderate to about seven per cent this fiscal year to March 31. Talks with the government would continue, Mr Lohara said, but a prolonged strike could nudge up prices of fruits and vegetables and disrupt supplies of other commodities. A three-day trucker's strike last July calling for lower road tolls and cheap diesel had pushed up prices of produce.

Big retailers stocked up and made arrangements with their own fleets to ensure supplies were not hit, said Rajan Malhotra, the chief executive of Big Bazaar in Mumbai. "We are well-stocked for the next 3-4 days, but if the strike drags on beyond that, then we will face shortages," he said. *Reuters