Coronavirus impact | Ports sector suffers as cargo vessels remain stranded

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic is severly impacting the shipping industry with cargo vessels stranded at ports during the 21-day nationwide lockdown.

Representatives from the ports sector have raised concerns over the high operational cost and congestion at ports, shortage of labourers, movement of workers and truck drivers, et al, due to the lockdown.

“Cargo operations are adversely impacted due to shortage of labour, which in leading to cargo piling up at the docks. Thus, affecting the rate of discharge,” said Shiv Halbe, CEO, Maritime Association of Shipowners, Shipmanagers and Agents (MASSA).

Total traffic handling at major ports had witnessed a muted rise (0.82 percent) to 705 million tonne (MT) last fiscal.

India has 12 major ports at Deendayal (erstwhile Kandla), Mumbai, JNPT, Mormugao, New Mangalore, Cochin, Chennai, Kamarajar (earlier Ennore), V.O. Chidambaranar, Visakhapatnam, Paradip and Kolkata (including Haldia).

Since the onset of the COVID- 19 crisis, many industries such as chemicals, dyes and pigments, pharmaceuticals, textiles, electronics and automobiles have been facing short-term supply disruptions due to a production shutdown in China, ratings agency ICRA said in a recent report.

Ports that have a significant exposure to the affected cargo categories could see a near term impact on their cargo volumes. The extent of the impact will depend of the duration of slowdown in consumer demand and industrial activities due to COVID-19 and the pace of subsequent recovery.

Halbe said outlook for the industry is not positive. Global economies are shrinking and diverting funds for survival rather than development. With oil prices at historic lows and demand sagging due to declining industrial output, the coming months are going to be tough.

Shipping Minister Mansukh Lal Mandaviya on April 3 had exhorted port officials and other stakeholders to convert the present crisis into an opportunity by ensuring smooth cargo operations so that supplies are not hit during the lockdown.

The government has asked each major ports to ensure that no penalties, demurrage, charges, fee, rentals are levied on any port user (traders, shipping lines, concessionaires, licensees etc) for any delay in berthing or loading and unloading operations or evacuation of cargo caused by the reasons attributable to the lockdown from March 22 to April 14.

There is also the issue of seafarers stranded on ships. “Seafarers, like railwaymen or vehicle operators, are essentially transport workers involved in moving essential goods,” Halbe said, adding that prolonged stay on board, away from their families, is not only bad for their morale but also detrimental to safe operations of ships.