AHEAD of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a 21-day countrywide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, long queues had formed on highways of trucks carrying essential goods and commodities, including medicines, milk, fruits and vegetables, by Tuesday, hours into several states sealing borders. While goods trains fall in the exempted category, freight services too were hit as states did not mention ‘Railways’ as essential service in their respective orders.
With confusion at the lower levels about exemptions, transport even within states was hit. Big online grocers such as Grofers and Big Basket too were left scrambling to ensure sustenance of their supply chains.
Grofers CEO Albinder Dhindsa tweeted that their warehouse in Faridabad had been shut by officials, while Big Basket announced on its mobile app that they were not operational due to restrictions. A senior Big Basket official told The Indian Express police had stopped their logistics partners across the country. Amazon India said in a blog post that it was prioritising delivery of products to those needed most during the pandemic.
Online pharmacy 1mg’s co-founder Prashant Tandon reported “about 17-18 incidents” of its delivery personnel being beaten up in Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, and Bengaluru. Freshtohome also said its personnel were being assaulted. Flipkart Supermart “delayed delivery slots due to an unforeseen increase in demand”, while fruits and vegetable suppliers on Swiggy were found “unserviceable” on Tuesday.
The Railways has informed the Cabinet Secretary about its staff, working to keep around 5,000 freight trains in operations, being stopped from reporting to duty, with all divisions affected to varying degrees. “Law enforcement agencies are telling our workers, labourers and others engaged in freight activities that all trains are cancelled so there can be no exemption for any railway worker. Then there are places where they are saying that only movement of essential commodities will be allowed, though all goods trains stand exempted as per the Union government’s instructions,” a top government official told The Indian Express.
Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi admitted disruption in supply of essential items. “We get rice from West Bengal, pulses from Katni and Satna in Madhya Pradesh, and mustard oil from Rajasthan. Trucks are being stopped at inter-state borders,” he told The Indian Express.
Kultaran Singh Atwal, President, All India Motor Transport Congress, said most trucks were halted at borders of Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and some states in southern India. “The government has locked everything down. Trucks are not being allowed to ply on roads… If the transport chain breaks, it poses danger to the supply of essential commodities,” he said, adding that drivers too were panicking, abandoning trucks at state borders to head to their native villages and towns. “Once they go away, it is very difficult to get them back,” he said.
The situation is further complicated because rail and air transport too is almost entirely shut down. While all-cargo flights are exempted from the government suspension of domestic flights effective Tuesday midnight, passenger aircraft account for 60% of cargo volumes handled by airlines. Without any passengers, the airlines don’t make enough earnings to make up for the costs incurred to operate flights.
At ports, shipments from COVID-19-affected countries like China and Singapore are not being offloaded due to fear of the contagion. Several ports are facing shortage of trucks due to drivers not being available.
The Grofers CEO told The Indian Express they had a backlog of over 2.6 lakh orders. In a mail to customers, Grofers Head of Customer Experience Suneet Gupta wrote, “Unfortunately, our delivery team has been held up at checkpoints and some of our warehouses have been locked by local authorities, as the situation due to Covid-19 remains very uncertain.”
Apart from Faridabad, the company saw its warehouses being shut in Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai, and Haryana’s Sonepat. The Sonepat warehouse was shut Sunday and opened only Monday late night. The facility mostly caters to customers in North Delhi.
Dhindsa tweeted Tuesday, “While we understand they (officials) are doing their duty, essential items will be denied to 20,000+ households in Faridabad and Delhi every day. We need help in sorting this out.” Co-founder Saurabh Kumar also took to Twitter to talk about its trucks and delivery partners being stopped. “Our delivery executives are selflessly putting their safety at risk to ensure people stay indoors and get all their essentials at home. Then they get stopped and harassed by police and local goons,” he wrote.
Many who had ordered groceries and medicines on on Big Basket on Tuesday found no new delivery slots available until March 31.
Amazon India in its blog post said, “To serve our customers’ most urgent needs while also ensuring safety of our employees, we are temporarily prioritizing our available fulfilment and logistics capacity to serve products that are currently critical for our customers such as Household Staples, Packaged Food, Health Care, Hygiene, Personal safety and other high priority products. This also means that we have to temporarily stop taking orders and disable shipments for lower-priority products.”
According to the feedback the Railways has got, each division is affected. Not just railway functionaries but labourers engaged in loading and unloading of freight and those operating clearance trucks are also being stopped. “If in Sambhalpur division the situation is better, then in freight-heavy divisions like Waltair, it’s very bad. So, it’s everywhere,” the railway official said.
The number of freight trains being run is already lower than usual in the current demand scenario.
Grofers asked RWAs and housing societies in NCR, Kolkata and Bengaluru to collaborate for “zero touch deliveries” by creating a drop zone in their colonies.
Shan Kadavil, CEO of Freshtohome, a meat and vegetable delivery start-up, said, “We are facing huge issues. Modiji had called delivery people rajya rakshak, but unfortunately the information has not gone down to the police level. Our delivery people are getting harassed and beaten up… We have taken all the necessary approvals, but it is a massive failure at the implementation level.”
Licious, the meat and seafood company, sent out a message to customers that they could not deliver as the “latest on-ground situation is non-conducive for home delivery”.
Both Grofers and Freshtohome said they were trying to procure curfew passes to operate in Delhi.
with ENS, Patna
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