Covid-19: Logistics industry anxious as ports run with essential services tag

P. Manoj Mumbai | Updated on April 06, 2020

The Shipping Ministry’s decision to keep the country’s ports running for clearing cargo by declaring it an essential service in the midst of the lockdown makes logical sense, but the move has triggered much anxiety in an industry where social distancing is unimaginable due to the scale of human interface needed for moving goods. \

For logistics to work, the entire chain should function uninterrupted.

This is where the Shipping Ministry’s move to continue with normal operations of ports and cargo clearance activities - for essential and non-essential goods - appears “contradictory” to the notifications issued by the Central and State governments restricting movement of people.

Many government offices and private entities have a role to play in the processing of EXIM documentation, drawing and testing of samples and issue of test results, certificates, etc.

These include Customs, port offices, plant quarantine and animal quarantine offices for sampling, testing and release of cargo/ phytosanitary certificates, Export Inspection Agency for sampling, testing and issue of certificates, FSSAI office for sampling, testing and release of cargo, courier services for delivery and acceptance of documents together with their movement across the country, shipping lines for acceptance and issue of bills of lading, delivery orders, insurance companies for issue of policies, container freight stations in and around ports where the cargo is offloaded / loaded, Customs examination and stuffing / destuffing, empty container yards for picking up empty containers for stuffing and offloading empty containers after import destuffing, cargo surveyors’ office, container transporters and their drivers / cleaners.

It requires personnel associated with cargo clearance to “personally” visit all or most of these offices/ places to get the work done.

“While doing so, they are contacting / interacting with various people in the whole logistics chain, and under the current circumstances, poses a major threat to their health and also to other people who have transactions with them,” said a logistic industry executive.

“If the employees are travelling, they are more susceptible to the coronavirus infection as they are coming into contact with a great many people,” he said.

“Some of these places are within a few km radius of each other, which could potentially become a hotspot for coronavirus if it enters the circuit,” says Alan Jose, President, Cochin Customs Brokers’ Association.

For instance, the Kerala government has declared Ernakulam district where Cochin Port Trust is located, as one of the hot spots in the state.

“Considering the above facts and the Covid-19 affected cases nearby, Vallarpadam (where the international container terminal run by D P World is located) may be one of the most dangerous red-hot spots,” Jose said in an April 3 letter to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

As cargo piles up, various intermediaries in the logistics chain are coaxing their skeletal staff, as well as customers/users to help clear cargo by assuring them of precautionary measures to protect and deal with the epidemic.

“We wish to reassure the trade and especially all importers / custom house agents and all other visitors coming to CFS in connection with clearances and deliveries of boxes that our member CFSs as responsible stakeholders and citizens are committed to combating and containing the spread of the deadly Covid-19. Accordingly, all our member CFSs have taken care and initiated several safety and health related precautionary measures keeping in mind the health of their own staff and also of persons visiting CFS’ for clearance of goods to contain the spread of the pandemic,” said Umesh Grover, Secretary-General, Container Freight Stations’ Association of India.

It is fundamental to keep the supply chain operational while also protecting employees and users, says Sanjay Sethi, Chairman, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, India’s biggest container port.

“JNPT has undertaken several preventive measures to equip and protect its workforce. All our buses and workplace are being sanitised regularly,” Sethi added.

If all the cargoes are allowed for free movement, the lockdown will become meaningless, N Sivasailam, Special Secretary (Logistics), Department of Commerce, said during a video conference with the logistics industry stakeholders, organised by the PHD Chamber of Commerce on April 3.

Published on April 06, 2020

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