Farm-to-fork logistics on the edge as Covid-19 disrupts supply chain

A small disruption in a place can upset the chain, triggering a massive logistical nightmare and breaks in supplies.
Simran Sandhu, a farmer in Haryana, had high hopes from his wheat crop. Not only was the harvest looking good, he expected to get a good price as market prices had improved marginally over the last few months.

Two events put paid to his plans.

Frequent unseasonal rain in the latter half of January, followed by the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, has left Sandhu fearing he may lose a substantial part of his harvest as labourers working in the fields have vanished and harvesters are difficult to hire.

Shops selling fertiliser and seeds are closed, clouding even the prospect of sowing short-duration summer crops, such as moong.

Hundreds of kilometres away, Rajkumar Bhatia, a fruit trader in Delhi’s Azadpur mandi, has a problem of a different kind. In the initial few days of the lockdown, fruit truckers came to the mandi but there wasn’t enough labour and small vehicles to ferry them forward because the police were enforcing the lockdown strictly.

The logjam prompted the Centre and states to order the police to exempt the movement of essential items. “Since Thursday, the situation has improved, but I am still apprehensive,” said Bhatia.

On Sunday, there were reports from Azadpur mandi that tomato sellers faced a huge challenge in arranging for containers to supply the produce as their movement hasn’t started in full strength.

Simon George, president of Cargill India, one of the most well-known FMCG companies in the country (makers of brands such as Nature Fresh, Sweekar, and Sunflower), says that retail demand for edible oils from foodservice businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, has gone down. But this has been somewhat compensated by the rising retail sales as consumers stock up more and eat more at home.

George has faced a challenge in running his 12 plants in the first few days but has ironed out many of the wrinkles. “By next week, I sincerely feel that a lot of things will get sorted out and the movement of trucks will be smooth,” said George.

For a final packaged consumer goods item, such as biscuits, to reach the consumer, he adds, the logistics for the supply chain, from procuring raw materials in the form of wheat flour, sugar, and emulsifiers right up to packaging and linking to the distribution network in the form of dealers and retailers, needs to run like clockwork.

It is the links — from the food producer, seller, procurement people, and processors through to the consumer — that have been broken and urgently need mending. Unlike in developed countries, this chain in India is diverse, widespread, highly scattered, disorganised, and dominated by small players.

A small disruption in a place can upset the chain, triggering a massive logistical nightmare and breaks in supplies, which can push up the prices of essential items.
Already, in some markets of the country prices of fruit and vegetables have moved up by 30-40 per cent in the past few days.

The fear of being harassed, George believes, has to be removed from the minds of logistics operators so that everyone can prepare for a long haul, not just 21 days.
The Centre and states have taken a slew of initiatives to clear the confusion, streamline the movement of trucks, and allow the mandis to function, which is the only way farm goods can reach consumers.

Migrant workers along with their family members wait to board buses to their respective villages, amid a nationwide lockdown in wake of coronavirus pandemic, at Lal Quarter Bus Stand in New Delhi, Sunday | Photo: PTI

On Friday night, the Centre exempted a host of services from the lockdown: Mandis, procurement agencies, farm operations, agriculture machinery hiring centres, farmworkers, fertiliser pesticide and seed-manufacturing and -packaging units, and the movement within and between states of farm implements.

It has also constituted a high-powered panel under Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to mitigate the supply-chain problems.

The hope is that this will enable the smooth harvesting, transport, and sale of the rabi crop, along with fruit and vegetables.

Some states, such as Haryana and Punjab, have incentivised their farmers to harvest the vital wheat crop late.

Even before the Centre’s circular was issued, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh — all big rabi procurement states — had already relaxed the lockdown norms to ensure a smooth harvest and its subsequent transportation to the mandis.

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