Times when I faced my own Shaheen Baghs and SC was the Big God

8th October 2020

8th October 2020

Many decades ago, before Indian Railways became better at moving container traffic on trains and certainly before the advent of Container Corporation of India aka ConCor, I worked as the Operations Manager of the largest container shipping line to serve India. This was even before the advent of mobile phones, though we did have fax and telex, and STD booths were fairly common all over India. The American company I worked with had been in business for over 200 years, had been moving containers since the 2nd World War and their agents in India had been in business since the 1830s. Part of my job was to free one from the other.

At any given time we had 4000 to 8000 containers out on the roads of India. Imagine even trying to track them once out. Technically they were under our control and charge. In truth, every time a container left our premises at a seaport or inland depot, it was with a prayer and a fond hope that it would return safe and sound without mishap. It was not unknown for a transporter or a truck crew to use the container loaded on his truck for weeks and months subsequent to it being de-stuffed at the consignee's location, or for it to also be used for all sorts of other purposes, especially for movement of anything not eligible for legal transport, and sometimes the first we would learn about this is when the Law in all it's might got in touch. Since the Agency company traced its presence in India to 1767, there was a lot of "tradition", also called "red tape", and goodwill.

A container stuck in trouble anywhere was considered a Godsend opportunity by the old-style bunch. Wet income. I was hired by the Yanks to sort all this out.

As Operations Manager, I had what appeared to be a fun job - at short notice, jump into an airplane, a train or a car, preferably a 4WD Jeep, and head off to somewhere, usually a very remote somewhere, to somehow rescue a container lying variously abandoned, seized or simply adrift somehow. Mostly these were simple solutions - an empty container utilised to smuggle goats, for example, meant assisting in dividing up the goats and paying for their upkeep before rescuing the truck, container and chastened driver plus cleaner combo. I also think I learnt over 500 different "traditions" going back to an era before the Mongols came rampaging down to loot India on local tolls, permissions, "panidari" and more - all part of a day's work for a trucker. 

Note - being a Punjabi of Fauji descent helped, first stop was mostly the local Gurudwara, where one would find helpful people who explained the local "traditions". Once "traditions" were taken care of, respect restored to everybody's satisfaction, quarter or more shared, it was back to Office. Often at less than 10% of what the agency guys were doing. Which did not make me popular. But I was not paid by the agency.

Big Gods, Small Gods

Releasing trucks all over India was interesting. Often fun. I learnt so much. Problems became solutions with politeness, smiles and straight talk. Small Gods have also got to be respected as well as kept happy. Usual big city people only think of Big Gods. I grew up in small towns and then all over the world. Human nature and experience taught you that Small God was also afraid that "what if" if Bigger God came to know? 

But the most difficult problem to solve - regardless of the size of Gods - was if a truck got caught up in a demonstration, and was then somehow utilised by the demonstrators, in whatever way. "Traditions" were not useful, the Law looked on apologetically, because the poor truck, driver, conductor and the container loaded on top were "evidence". And usually also the fall guys if, Gods forbid, somebody had died in the course of the demonstrations. The locals would make up amongst themselves, then move out with a noose in their hands, looking for a suitable neck. Which was, obviously, the outsider trucker. 

Eventually, "superdari" was managed, but next is what? Can you imagine trying to get an empty international container released from "superdari" and then moving it out of India for an export shipment? You can't. And if the international container does not export itself? Pay a penalty there also.

It was even worse if the container was stuffed with some poor exporters life inside. A loaded 40' container going AWOL was, in most cases, the end of a mid-sized Exporters business - because it was not just the value of the goods inside, but also all sorts of paperwork with Customs, Excise, State and Central Government agencies, buyer's reps,and others, and on top of all of them - the banking system. And then loss of reputation. International buyers just could not understand how a shipment could get totally frozen somewhere just because some people were agitating about, say, wanting a new college or over a language.

At such times, one of the solutions was to quietly get another empty container, and somehow transfer the goods within. All that cost effort, time and money. 

If there was one thing I feared most working for a shipping line with containers on trucks all over India - it was getting a phone call that such and such truck with xyz container had been detained because of a demonstration somewhere. Over-turning, catching fire, vagaries of nature, diversions, delayed, goats inside - everything and more was not an issue. This business of trucks with cargo getting seized because of demonstrations was The End. 

It also gave my country a bad name, and there was many a fight I had with my American bosses on the subject, and eventually lost. Because it was a simple fact of life - free flow of commerce was a religion for them in North America. I had seen it myself. It was and still is the backbone of success if a country wants to move forward.

Matters were resolved to a large extent by moving containers from trucks to trains for the long haul parts to and from sea-ports. The Indian Railways have their own Railway Protection Force, they are protected by Central Laws, as is the cargo onboard. They also have a huge network of alternate routes, which they use brilliantly - and their Roll-On-Roll-Off truck-on-train is a Godsend for India.

This judgement of Supreme Court with reference to Shaheen Bagh—that you could protest peacefully at designated area but not block public space--is a force multiplier in terms of benefits for commerce in India. Over roads. 

This Supreme Court judgement is so very welcome, that I need to say it again - democracy by demonstration on public roads was never a solution in an Independent country.

Veeresh Malik was a seafarer. And a lot more besides. A decade in facial biometrics, which took him into the world of finance, gaming, preventive defence and money laundering before the subliminal mind management technology blew his brains out. His romance with the media endures since 1994, duly responded by Outlook, among others.

A survivor of two brain-strokes, triggered by a ship explosion in the 70s, Veeresh moved beyond fear decades ago. 

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