COVID-19 effect: With significant pile ups at ports, major container shipping lines start skipping India

A number of major global container shipping lines have started skipping country’s up container gateways, following the disruption caused at the major ports by the lockdown imposed by the Centre to check the spread of COVID-19. But this has not affected the number of commercial ships moving in the shipping lanes of the Indian ocean, which continue at the earlier levels of 11,000 to 12,000 ships at any given time.

Major global container shipping lines, which include Maersk Line, Hapag-Lloyd, CMA-CGM and China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), are reported to have begun completely skipping the country’s top container gateways, including the state-owned Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Chennai port, and the Adani-operated Mundra port, industry players confirmed.

“Due to the significant reduction in demand, we will be having blank sailings (sailings canceled by the carrier) from West Asia/Indian subcontinent to Europe and Mediterranean … and vice-versa,” said Maersk Line, the world’s biggest container liner, in a customer advisory dated April 3. Issues in clearing import containers from the ports and adjoining container freight stations, alongside the problems arising on account of the complete lack of export shipments from India, have ended up disrupting carrier schedules.

However, this has not affected the movement of commercial shipping in the major shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, which are monitored round-the-clock by the Indian Navy’s IMAC. As per official sources, the number of ships in these lanes remain the same as earlier at 11,000-12,000 ships at any time. There are a total of 13 major ports in India which handled a traffic of 7,04,822 MT in FY20.

Immediately after the imposition of the 21-day lockdown, the Directorate General of Shipping imposed a 14-day quarantine on shipping vessels arriving from any port in China or any COVID-19-affected nation. While vessels arriving after 14 days of departure from a country where the virus had spread were not required to comply with the additional precautionary measures, those recording stoppages at any port of affected nations for refueling were not to be considered for the calculation of this 14-day transit.

As a result of these restrictions and complexities in the stipulated docking norms, “significant pile-ups” were reported at India’s major ports (state-owned) and key container transhipment hubs, an official involved in the exercise said. This was accentuated by the staff shortage at ports due to rotational rostering since the lockdown. Ports that were not able to comply with the specified requirements were simply told not to allow berthing for vessels that arrived within 14 days from the infected countries, which further added to the pile-up.

Compounding the problem further, some 70 per cent of truckers serving JNPT in Mumbai, India’s busiest container hub, have abandoned work and gone back to their villages following the outbreak and the subsequent clampdown.

Most of the private ports and terminals operating in the country have invoked the force majeure clause as most of them are involved in end-to-end contracts and operations were badly disrupted for a variety of reasons.