Fruit and vegetable exports nosedive amidst aviation crisis

Vishwanath Kulkarni, Rahul Wadke, V Sajeev Kumar Bengaluru | Updated on March 20, 2020

Dismal trend Apeda figures reveal that exports of fresh vegetables were 38 per cent lower in April-January 2019-20 at 16.55 lakh tonnes   -  AFP

Shipments to halt next week due to ban on flights

The disruption in the aviation sector following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has dealt a major blow to exports of perishables from India, mainly fresh fruits, vegetables and floriculture products. Exporters see a further adverse impact on shipments in the days ahead with the ban on all incoming flights into the country from March 22.

Sources at the Commerce Ministry said shipments are down by about a fourth in volume in recent months mainly due to cancellations of flight services to various destinations.

“Orders are there, but the exporters are unable to ship because very few flights are operating. Also there in no adequate cargo space available on passenger flights and whereever space is available, the charges have been hiked,” a source said, adding that a further impact would be felt from March 22.

APEDA’s latest figures reveal that exports of fresh vegetables were 38 per cent lower in April-January 2019-20 at 16.55 lakh tonnes as against 26.67 lakh tonnes in the corresponding period last year.

In value terms, fresh vegetable exports were 21 per cent lower at $547 million ($691 million). However, fresh fruit exports were up marginally at 5.41 lakh tonnes (5.39 lakh tonnes). But in value terms, the fresh fruit shipments were 7 per cent lower at $462 million ($496 million). Floriculture exports were down 5 per cent at $63 million for the period.

The air shipment of mangoes, banana, fresh vegetables and flowers from airports such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, among others, has been impacted by coronavirus-related developments over the past few weeks. “There is a clampdown on sectors for fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers,” an official with a large cargo and logistic company in Mumbai said.

Mango shipments hit

Exports of Alphonso mango mangoes have come to a grinding halt due to the import ban by Gulf countries, said Vivek Bhide, former member of the Maharashtra Horticulture Board. The expected pick-up in arrivals by mid-April will further drive down the rates, he said.

Milind Manerikar of Pune-based Sahayadri Flora said shipments have stopped after March 1 as there are no flights to take roses to markets such as Japan and Lebanon. “Today there is a huge demand from Japan for Indian roses but there are no flights to take cargo. Our six lakh roses have gone waste,” he lamented, while stating that the company has already suffered losses to the tune of ₹25 lakh.

Though weak economic conditions in West Asia have resulted in subdued demand for fruits and vegetables from Kerala over the past few months, the current move to withdraw international flights would further impact the sector badly, Dil Koshy, Secretary, Agricultural Products and Processed Food Exporters Association, said.

Impact on Kerala

On a daily basis, Kerala dispatches around 150 tonnes of perishable cargo, comprising fruits, vegetables and other processed foods to the gulf markets by air from Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram.

On the option of sending cargo on chartered flights, Koshy said resorting to cargo flights or “freighters” is not economically viable because of the absence of any incoming cargo to Kerala other than unaccompanied baggage if any.

However, PE Ashraf Ali of Pomona Exports, Kozhikode, said that Emirates is operating cargo flights from Kochi to West Asian destinations to encourage exports. But the rates are three to four times higher than the normal freight rates of ₹45 per kg and it varies depending on the destinations. “We are also planning to dispatch vegetables to the Gulf markets”, he said adding that the upcoming restrictions would only be for passenger flights and not for chartered ones. A leading supermarket chain in the UAE recently sent 20 tonnes of perishables from Kochi to Kuwait twice via Emirates and Spice Jet, he said.

Koshy pointed out that perishable exports from Kerala have started declining since February. However, an assessment of the impact on the company’s financials is yet to be carried out. The export disruption has initially started in Kuwait, followed by Qatar due to the reduction in the frequency of flights, which has made it difficult for exporters to send cargo. Besides, the shift to narrow-bodied aircraft from wide-bodied ones due to lower passenger turnouts has also impacted exports.

Published on March 20, 2020

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