Mumbai: Air freight operators and logistics firms are being forced to suspend operations because goods are piling up at cargo terminals due to lack of staff and trucks have been halted by police enforcing the Covid-19 lockdown across the country. That could lead to essential supplies grinding to a halt as the country embarks on a three-week lockdown despite express government assurances that this wouldn’t be the case.
Among the goods ferried by these firms are food, medicines, masks, sanitisers and even testing kits for the Covid-19 virus.
Global air freighter operators Fedex and UPS are suspending most flight operations to and from India. DHL Express may follow soon. Logistics companies including Ecom Express, Safexpress and Spoton Logistics are shutting warehouses and delivery centres. They have stopped taking orders. Trucks of India’s DTDC, carrying medicines and equipment, have been halted midway. Future Supply Chain, which carries goods to Big Bazaar stores, is managing “sporadic operations” but its trucks are banned in states such as Punjab.
Acute Shortage of Staff
“We are seeing a major supply chain disaster in the coming days,” said Vijay Kumar, chief operating officer of the Express Industry Council of India lobby group.
The government ordered a 21-day lockdown of the entire country from Wednesday to prevent the spread of Covid-19. All transport has been suspended with essential goods being exempted.
But hundreds of vehicles carrying food and medicines across the country have been stopped by police personnel who “aren’t differentiating between what’s essential and what’s not,” said the managing director of one of the country’s biggest logistics companies.
“While freighters are allowed to fly, our airport facilities are choked to the point where we can’t even offload boxes from the aircraft,” RS Subramanian, senior vice president and managing director, DHL Express, told ET.
“There is acute short-staffing. We usually have over 200 people at the Delhi airport cargo terminal. Now we have10. Customs is always shortstaffed. Now the officials have given a notification of working for 12 hours (even though the finance minister has announced they will be working 24×7),” he said. “Last two days, we have been getting multiple queries on import of ventilators and testing kits but haven’t been able to accept a single one so far.”
A Fedex spokesperson said it has “temporarily and partially suspended pickup and delivery services for domestic and international to and from India, until further notice” although it continues to bring in critical and life-saving medical equipment to the country. A person in the know said that wouldn’t be possible now with the choking of terminals.
While UPS can bring in goods by air, state border crossings have caused disruptions, a spokesperson said.
“UPS has secured exemptions in order to continue the movement of goods by flight for India,” the company said. “However, interstate border crossings are currently restricted resulting in temporary suspension of pickup and delivery service. We continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure that we are able to mitigate potential impacts due to disruptions in the affected areas and will reinstate normal service as soon as government guidance allows.”
A total of 47 express freighters land in the country weekly.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) renewed its call to governments to take “urgent measures to ensure their vital air cargo supply lines remain open, efficient and effective.”
IndiGo CEO Rono Dutta wrote to civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri offering to help transport medicines, equipment and relief supplies.
Kumar said customs officials had been stopped by the police on their way to the Delhi airport. This had prompted the government to issue a notification that they should be allowed to come to work.
While the Centre has assured citizens of adequate supply of groceries and medicines, transport organisations, police and state governments aren’t “talking to each” other, said one executive.
Warehouses stocking essentials and other items are running at 30% capacity whereas they should be “theoretically at 110%,” said Future Supply Chain managing director Mayur Toshniwal.
The company isn’t able to open distribution centres at many places and has been completely banned from transporting goods through states such as Punjab. Hundreds of its trucks are stranded on the road.
Ecom Express has had to shut 2,000 delivery centres and has 160 vehicles stranded, said founder K Satyanarayana.
Safexpress executive director SR Sharda said a truck carrying medicines was stopped in Gujarat. The company is able to carry out only 50% of operations. Spoton Logistics, which has 38 hubs and 300 service centres, has shut operations since Monday and stopped taking orders, said managing director Abhik Mittra.
Most executives said operations are being reviewed on a daily basis and repeated representations being made to the government on instructing law-enforcement agencies to allow those stocking and carrying essentials to do their jobs.