Moving goods is not a smooth run, despite government clamping on people movement

Mamuni Das New Delhi | Updated on March 24, 2020

Parcel loading hit by cancellation of trains and flights, workers stranded as States lock down

Even as passenger trains and international flights have been halted, the Central government has decided, for now, to allow plying of goods using trains, domestic cargo flights and trucks during the Covid-19 outbreak, till March 31. But this is turning out to be far from a smooth run, on the ground. Here is why.

First, stoppage of passenger trains has resulted in all parcel movements getting hit as most of the fast-moving parcels are loaded in passenger trains and not goods trains. Second, grounding of international passenger flights has also disrupted the cargo moved in the belly of passenger flights. Third, movement on highways been negatively affected as drivers head home to their near and dear fearing the worst, and those still moving are facing problems of finding food as States shut down. Trucks are also stuck because of sealed State borders at several places.

After passenger train services were shut, labour contractors who load parcels — carrying electronic items, fruits, and other materials — are not finding work.

“Our labourers work in the parcel department. There could be around 900 labourers in just the New Delhi Railway station. They used to work 24 hours, in shifts, to load fruits, electronics, bangles, bindi, sanitary items and crockery. Now, many of the labourers — from UP, Bihar and Bengal — are stranded in nearby areas of UP and Delhi [without work],” Mohit, a labour contractor in the New Delhi railway station told BusinessLine.

The government has decided, for now, not to stop the goods trains of the railways as they would carry essential supplies. However, in the run-up to this decision, there were several deliberations. “One thought was that, may be railways can move lots of goods given that tracks would be empty. However, the other thought was how could we force any worker to work if we could not protect them or if they were unwilling,” said an official. Another official pointed out that while moving cargo that requires mechanised loading like coal will not be hit, those that require manual labour, like cement, foodgrain and fertiliser, may face difficulties.

Disrupted flights too are seeing cargo issues. “Spot prices for parcel movement have soared. There is increase in incidences of parcels getting lost. Earlier, the rates for such parcel movement used to change once in about three days, and now it changes three-four times every day,” said Ambrish, Founder, Logycode, a start-up that uses machine learning to find out spot-prices for air transport, adding that they have seen a surge in export of masks.

Drivers on the highways are facing problems as they are stuck — several times struggling for food as dhabas have closed with States announcing complete lockdown. For instance, Odisha’s lockdown has resulted in all automotive-repair shops also closing.

Moreover, as dhabas can be potential areas of infection, some transporters have started making food available to their long-distance drivers, paying salaries to them and asking them to stock up basic staples from retail outlets, said SP Singh, Senior Fellow, Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training (IFTRT). “When people fear for their lives and if they think they could die any moment, they just want to be with their near and dear ones. So, many drivers are heading home, and some are being called back by family,” added IFTRT.

Bread and biscuit maker Bonn Group of Industries is facing challenges while moving trucks by road. “We have been getting multiple complaints from our logistics team that we [our vehicles] have been stopped by cops when we tried to enter different States like Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. It is a concern (for movement) within State as well,” Amrinder Singh, Director, Bonn Group of Industries, told BusinessLine.

“Panic buying has led to shortage. We are unable to move supplies as well as people on time. Some of our plants are unable to run at even 50 per cent capacity,” said Bonn Group’s Singh. This, even as they are moving essential supplies.

A spokesperson of AP Moller Maersk said that they have readied contingency plans to ensure that employees can work from home in situations where they have to partly or fully close office facilities. “We are following the travel guidelines from the authorities and are taking special precautions depending on the situation and location. The precautionary measures are continuously reviewed. As an example, currently this means that employees who have travelled in restricted countries or areas must work from home for 14 days upon return,” the spokesperson said. Whether a trip is business-critical is assessed by top management who will weigh business implications against potential risks in each case.

Published on March 24, 2020

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