Shortage of workers in clearing cargo clogs airports, ports, railways

A severe shortage of workers and transport in clearing cargo has clogged airports, ports, and, to some extent, railway stations. This is despite the fact that freight movement by air and rail and even trade cargo handled at ports face no lockdown restrictions.

The ambiguity surrounding the definitions of essential and non-essential commodities is lending impediments to the process. Waiving demurrage charges at airports is acting as a disincentive for importers in taking their goods.

“There is a problem of cargo clearance at terminals, barring medical and essential supplies, which have been ordered for disease combat. Other items are not being cleared because there is a shortage of truckers, trolleys, and people working in this,” said a customs official at Delhi airport.

Besides, industry officials said cargo movement at ports had dropped by 50-60 per cent in the last few weeks due to lower industrial production in the country.

If the lockdown continues, it is expected to drop another 10-15 per cent, putting pressure on shipping lines. “Ports that are more manual in nature or lack mechanisation to a sizeable extent are facing the maximum heat. The waiting period has gone to four-five days. Coastal cargo movement, at present, has been impacted the most with only about 40 per cent (of the vessels) running,” said a senior official at a private port. Coking coal, thermal coal, and fertiliser, among others, are some of the bulk commodities carried as coastal cargo.

“Among major ports, Tuticorin (VO Chidambaranar Port Trust) is in a difficult situation and may announce force majeure anytime soon. Being a more manually operating port, it is unable to follow the social distancing norm and due to this force majeure is likely at this port,” said the official.

Among private ports, Krishnapatnam, on the east coast, is in a similar situation. Cargo is lying there since March 26, said industry officials.

In the container cargo segment, in which essential commodities like pharmaceuticals and agricultural products are handled, the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) is creating additional space because importers are not lifting material from container-freight stations.

“In the last few weeks, the customs department has notified ICDs (Inland Container Depot) belonging to Concor under the JNPT, giving the port more room to stack its containers,” said a senior official at the country’s largest container port.

Similarly, Delhi airport has requested permission from the customs department and the ministry of civil aviation to use the export cargo terminal for imported goods because it is running short of space, said sources. When contacted, Videh Kumar Jaipuriar, chief executive officer, Delhi International Airport Ltd, said: “Additional warehouse space is being created. We are talking to the customs department for adequate staff at cargo terminals.”

The situation is not too different in the railways. For commodities such as coal and petroleum, there is a decline in unloading. Foodgrains are still being unloaded faster because government-owned agencies move them for supply to the public distribution system. Despite this, the railways loaded 1.71 million tonnes of foodgrains, flour and pulses, up 148 per cent over the 690,000 million tonnes during the same time last year.

A similar drop in loading and unloading was seen in petroleum and iron and steel, where loading dropped by 63 per cent and 45 per cent, respectively.

Both Delhi and Mumbai airports are the hub of cargo movement in India. Delhi airport is handling 20-22 cargo flights a day with freighters arriving from destinations like Doha, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Incheon, and Paris.

Mumbai handles 200-250 tonnes of imported cargo every day.

“For the past three days, 150-200 tonnes of cargo is being cleared by agents daily and we expect this trend to continue,” a Mumbai airport official said.

While Mumbai airport took permission from the police and provided vehicles for road transport for the staff, freight forwarders and custom brokers didn’t report to clear the cargo, he added. Jaipuriar said customs official were stationed at cargo terminals for clearing the shipments of essential goods.