The word unprecedented has never felt more contextually relevant than now when 1.3 billion Indians have hunkered down over more than 40 days to weather the biggest lockdown in human history. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures — currently in the context of a lockdown with the closure of borders, a ban on travel, and people protecting themselves and others by staying at home.
In March, on the Prime Minister’s instructions, eleven Empowered Groups (EG) on key areas were set up, one of which focused on supply chain and logistics management of essential goods. The role of this group, which included members from the customs, food, consumer and all the transport ministries, was to coordinate and monitor the operations of the supply chain, engage with all related stakeholders from the private and public sector, identify policy and implementation bottlenecks and troubleshoot where necessary. Members of the empowered group, using video-conferencing technology, have been holding virtual meetings every single day to connect, address emerging challenges, and plan ahead. Data systems across government agencies were leveraged to create a dashboard to assess the movement of trucks containing food and pharmaceuticals, rakes and port traffic, in addition to data on arrival of food items at major mandis and movement of pharmaceutical and hygiene products.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the lockdown, there were some expected disruptions in the manufacturing supply chains of essential goods, especially food and medicines. However, in the disruption lies the opportunity to strengthen the weaker links of the chain. An interesting example of the cascading effects of a break in the supply chain was seen with milk. The production of milk, still in excess of 90 per cent, should not have been a cause for alarm. The initial non-availability of packaging material, however, left the produced milk with nowhere to go. The materials’ factories were under lockdown. And yet, in times of disruption, we witness solutions — big and small. In the face of a surplus of milk in some parts of the country and shortages in others, many milk producers like Amul started producing milk powder. And shortly after, the entire milk manufacturing value chain was up and running.
With strong partnerships across the country, and with a significant relaxation of the conditions during lockdown 3.0, we are witnessing a steady improvement in the movement of trucks containing packaged food. As a percentage of the average daily number of food trucks before the lockdown, only 30 per cent were operational on March 30. This improved to 59 per cent on April 10 and further to 80 per cent on May 5. Similarly, the corresponding figures for pharmaceuticals were 48 per cent, 65 per cent and 75 per cent on the respective dates. Even “non-essential” items are now moving fairly easily across the country.
Following suit, in these past few weeks, many supply warriors have emerged. The country’s 167-year-old trusted warhorse — the Indian Railways — was roped in early. On an ordinary day, Railways transports over two crore passengers via 12,000 trains to the remotest parts of India. During the lockdown period, the Indian Railways has transported about eight million tonnes of foodgrain from the Food Corporation of India. Not just this, the IRCTC is operating all its base kitchens across the country to prepare foods and over 22 lakh people have already been fed since the nationwide lockdown began. Private and government aircraft fleets have chipped in to operationalise 465 “Lifeline Udaan” flights for the transport of essential commodities to remote parts of the country to support India’s fight against COVID. This has allowed nearly 836 tonnes of cargo to cover an aerial distance of over 4,51,038 km. The Indian Air Force has been leveraged for difficult-to-reach locations such as Ladakh, which had been snowed in with the closure of the strategic Srinagar-Leh road. The road was opened recently thanks to the efforts of the Indian Army and the Border Roads Organisation and supplies by road have resumed.
The Food Corporation of India, tasked with ensuring the availability of food grain stocks pan-India, has broken records during this period.
FCI, in the initial period of lockdown, moved a mammoth 1.93 lakh metric tonnes of grain in just two days. Their efforts are supplemented by NGOs, kirana stores and e-commerce players who ensure door to door delivery of produce to citizens. And last, but by no means the least, thousands of truck drivers have been working round the clock, away from their families, and in very difficult circumstances and working conditions to ensure that the nearest supermarket doesn’t run out of essential supplies.
A more recent member of this club of supply warriors is Asia’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market — Delhi’s Azadpur Mandi. The mandi is a major hub connecting growers of south and west India to markets in north India and is now functioning on a 24X7 basis. Vegetables and fruits are now being sold from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm, and the movement of trucks is from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am. The operation, in difficult circumstances, is now being managed in conformity with social distancing norms with the introduction of a token system — entry of a 1,000 people at a time and even 600 sanitation warriors to maintain cleanliness. This move will provide significant relief to farmers and traders across the country.
These, and many other supply chain warriors, have stood up to serve the nation in these trying times. Their efforts bear testimony to the fact that the true character of a nation comes out in the face of adversity, and disruption is nothing but an opportunity for action. All of us can do our bit too, simply by obeying the rules of the lockdown and not hoarding essential goods. Be rest assured that millions of supply warriors are working overtime to make sure that you have access to food and medicines when you need them. We will come out of this stronger than ever.
This article first appeared in the print edition dated May 7, 2020 under the title “Weak links into strengths”. The writer is secretary, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation and convenor of the Empowered Group on Supply Chain and Logistics of Essential Goods. Views are personal.
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