Threat of shortage of essential goods looms as supply logjam continues

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Truckers alleged there was no clarity on when they would they would be allowed to move, nor was there any support from the administration to park their vehicles. Across Haryana, thousands are stranded with no food and water.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 announced a 21-day lockdown- the most far reaching measure by any government to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The move, which experts believe is essential, but hastily drawn has thrown the country’s logistics system into disarray as local administrations are confused the over interpretation of the government orders.

The effect of the same continues to take a toll on the goods supply chain across states with lakhs of truck stuck in limbo.

These trucks are carrying food and medical supplies, including masks and gloves for nurses, from states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand, and have been stuck at the borders since the past few days.

Movement obstructed

For about 15,000 drivers and labourers stranded at Asia’s biggest truck pit– the Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar, there has been no respite from either the local administration, state government or Central government since the day the ‘Janta Curfew’ was announced. Reportedly, consignments from as far as Nepal, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are lying stranded at the hub that is situated near the Grand Trunk Road, India’s busiest highway.

Truckers alleged there was no clarity on when they would they would be allowed to move, nor was there any support from the administration to park their vehicles. Across Haryana, thousands are stranded with no food and water.

Amrick Singh, a member of the Sanjay Gandhi Transport Nagar union said, “Thousands of truck drivers are stuck with no food or shelter. Road-side food stalls are also shut. Where will the driver go to eat on the highways? There has been no help from the government so far, neither from the state or the Centre. This is Asia’s biggest transport hub and we are living in such conditions, not a single penny as aid has been provided. Some drivers have even left their trucks and fled on foot.”

“Our local associations are trying whatever bare minimum food we can arrange for ourselves.”

Many grocery stores in Delhi-NCR have complained they are running out of stock as people are buying essentials in huge quantities and there is no certainty about supplies.

Members of another association of truckers said the situation had already delayed the delivery cycle of supplies by two weeks. “This is a humanitarian crisis in the making. This callous approach is going to snap the supply chain of essential commodities soon,” said Kultaran Singh Atwal, President of the All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC).

Another issue, truckers pointed out, is that vehicles that had already carried essential items inside the city were not being allowed to return empty or with non-essential items. “As a result, they are getting stuck on their return. For instance, 100 trucks drop fruits and vegetables in Gurugram or Delhi. Now, when they need to return to their source, they are being stopped as they are empty. Even if they carry some goods or non-essential items for their financial viability, they are being stopped. This will have repercussions on the freight movement and supplies will take a hit,” said Naveen Kumar Gupta, Secretary General at AIMTC.

Awful living conditions

Swamped in close quarters with no permission to move, the drivers are also living with an eminent fear of either contracting the virus or dying of hunger.

Transporters welfare bodies have called for sanitation drive at the border before allowing the entry, availability of few eateries, clarity on essential items and expanding scope of what can be transported, extension or rebate of their EMIs, among others.

“We have approached, represented and requested time and again to the Government to allow good vehicles in transit to reach their destination after screening of drivers and sanitisation of vehicles. We expect immediate circular from the Government to allow trucks, either empty or with non-essential goods to reach their destination/home state without any hassles. The drivers are getting restless and may abandon the vehicles on the highways,” Atwal said.

While a few lakh out of the 30 lakh trucks stranded on national and state highways started moving on Friday, many of them are being asked to pay fees by local police to cross the barricades, stated truck drivers. Police however denied harassing any truck driver and insisted that all trucks carrying essential goods were being allowed to pass.

E-commerce delivery resumes, but volatile

For e-comm players, too, supply has become as daunting a challenge as distribution. Officials of some of the top e-tailers said that while governments had started removing restrictions, inter-state movement of goods was proving to be both a logistical and financial bottleneck. Given that trucks now have to travel empty one-way, prices of essentials are likely to go up by 2-10.

T A Krishnan, Co-founder and CEO of Ecom Express, a third-party logistics company catering to online platforms said, “Inter-state movement is still not clear, trade borders are still sealed. When it comes to local permission, the authorities have been forthcoming. We managed to get passes in Bengaluru and Gurgaon, while we are electronically applying for the same in Delhi. Hyderabad has asked for permission letters, which we have submitted. By end of the weekend, it should be back to normal, at least for local movement.”

The biggest issue for e-commerce companies has been getting their workforce back to the warehouses. One of the larger companies said that only 20-25% of its delivery personnel have been turning up for work. Many warehouses operated by e-commerce companies were still shut as of Sunday afternoon, and only a small number of their delivery workers had passes to make deliveries.

“We are working towards building and strengthening the morale of delivery teams and supply chain executives, and are hopeful that more executives will resume work soon,” said Chief Corporate Affairs Officer of Flipkart Rajneesh Kumar. Flipkart has resumed grocery deliveries in five cities — Bengaluru, Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai.

BigBasket has become operational across 20-odd cities including Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Noida-Ghaziabad, Gurugram, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Nagpur, Patna, Vijayawada, and Chandigarh and is working towards resuming operations in Kochi. In Kochi, it expects to get permission soon. The company said it would first clear the backlog of orders before taking new orders.

Amazon India, in a tweet, said it has resumed operations in Bengaluru and Pune on Saturday. It is in the final stages of getting clearances in Tamil Nadu, Telangana, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Lucknow and Uttarakhand. Some states like Maharashtra and Punjab are, however, posing a problem. In Mumbai, Amazon is facing jurisdictional issues as all e-comm warehouses are in Bhiwandi, which falls in Thane.

Grofers said while it has resumed operations in many cities across north, west and south India, permissions are on their way and operations will start soon in Kolkata, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kanpur, Sonipat, Rohtak, Meerut, Bhiwadi. According to Rohit Sharma, Head of supply chain at Grofers, “90% of our warehouses are operational and we have obtained permits for about 50% of our delivery staff, still delivery times will be longer as the authorities had forced us to suspend its operations for a few days.”

Echoing a similar sentiment, another e-commerce executive said that there was no standard procedure across cities and states for obtaining permits, resulting in delays and uncertainty.

Government Intervention

The Union government has issued several circulars asking states to keep units manufacturing food and essential items going and allow transport of intermediary goods.

A ‘logistics and supplies committee’ to look at transport logistics has also been formed by the government which will meet daily at 11 am through video conferencing. Seven secretaries from the ministries of consumer affairs, road transport, civil aviation, shipping, textile, health and Chairman of the Railway Board are part of the committee that has been tasked with ensuring unhindered supply of essential items during the lockdown.

The committee headed by civil aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola and whose convenor is Pharma Secy Dr P D Vaghela, has issued instructions asking that goods carriers stranded at check-posts be granted one-time clearance to pass, and travel to their destination. The committee has decided that all fresh movement, however, should only be for essential commodities, and the larger supply chain must be maintained.

“The biggest need is now that all administration work in tandem and implement the orders in unison. Hence the committee has been formed which will collect daily inputs and ensure coordination to solve the issues,” said an official, who is part of the committee.

For instance, according to minutes of the meeting held on March 28, Priyank Bharti, a Joint Secretary in the Road Transport Ministry raised the issue of truckers facing the shortage of food on their way as all roadside eateries are closed. He also mentioned that local police authorities were stopping goods carriers.

Following that home ministry issued an instruction to all chief secretaries to ensure movement of people associated with transport of essential supplies and precisely classifying them.

Officials who attended the video conferencing said that North Eastern states had raised the issue that supply of essential commodities including food and medicine had slowed down.

“The hurdle was that there weren’t enough freighter jets available to ensure supply as aviation regulator DGCA wasn’t permitting passenger aircraft to be used for cargo transport,” said a second official who is part of the committee. This has been sorted as of March 28 as both Air India and private airlines are now being allowed to carry food and medicine supplies.

On Saturday Air India used both A320 and smaller ATR aircraft to operate 12 flights to ferry medicine and food items to Imphal, Agartala, Bhubaneshwar and Raipur. Similarly private airline IndiGo operated two A320 aircraft carrying supplies.

Meanwhile, a senior official at Indian Railways said that following suggestion from the committee on March 28, around 34648 wagons carried supplies to keep the supply chains functional. Of these, 23682 wagons of sugar, salt, coal and petroleum products were ferried by Indian Railways in 425 rakes to ensure that the supply chains keep functioning. The total number of wagons carrying essential commodities during the past five days thus reached approximately 1,25,000. “The priority for the national transporter’s focus will be on delivery of essential commodities like rice, wheat, sugar, salt and vegetables. In the last three days, we have already increased the loading of essential commodities. With the committee too in place, we would ensure that these goods are delivered covering the long distance. To monitor the uninterrupted movement of essential commodities over Indian Railway system, an emergency freight control is working in the Ministry of Railways,” said a statement by the Indian Railways.

Executives of consumer goods companies say that the committee should be flexible enough to change the definition of essential and non-essential commodities.

An executive of 3M- an MNC in health care product said, “We have factories in Maharashtra and Karnataka which produce Sodium Hypochlorite which is used as raw material to manufacture disinfectants. With the lockdown we are unable to manufacture and distribute these chemicals to hospitals or residential complex. This needs to be put in essential commodities.” Pawan Kumar Agarwal, secretary of consumer affairs raised the issue in the meeting on Saturday.

(With inputs from HT, TOI, and LiveMint)

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