India’s sudden lockdown threatens food supply chains

Jaikishan Saini, a vegetable trader in the gigantic wholesale market of Azadpur in India, normally received five trucks of chillies, cucumbers, okra and country squash every day for sale to distributors, who supply the consumers in New Delhi and the surrounding area.

But after the Indian government curtailed public movement to curb the spread of the coronavirus last weekend, Mr. Saini lost 200,000 rupees ($ 2,600) on two trucks of Rajasthan peppers, whose transit has been seriously delayed , damaging crops. When the peppers finally arrived in New Delhi, few potential buyers were able to reach the market.

These days, Mr. Saini has reduced his supply of vegetables to just one truck per day. “I don’t want to take as many risks because all of our transactions are on credit and no one really knows what will follow,” said Saini. “It’s like a bet.”

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide strict 21-day curfew on 1.4 billion Indian people this week, India’s supply chains have been severely disrupted in the middle general confusion about which essential businesses are allowed to operate during the foreclosure.

© Dibyangshu / AFP

Public health experts believe the curfew will help India avoid a massive outbreak of coronavirus that would quickly overwhelm its fragile and chronically underfunded health care system.

“Lockdown is necessary – it’s essential,” said virologist Shahid Jameel, managing director of WellcomeTrust / DBT India Alliance, a charity for biomedical research. “If we don’t, this country is capable of becoming another Italy.”

Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, also believes that a curfew was necessary. “I think we would have flattened the curve considerably with this,” he said. “Come on April 15, we will face a surge but it is not that big.”

But the lack of advance warning and preparation to maintain supplies of food, medicine and other household items during the foreclosure has led to the breakdown of critical supply chains as well as concerns about the number of vulnerable people who will gain their lives, even survive. .

Police stopped freight trucks from crossing state borders and harassed couriers delivering online orders to middle-class urban homes.

© Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

“It is very clear at the outset that we are not facing a problem of lack of supplies,” said Rathin Roy, director of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. “We face a problem of how to get supplies to where they are needed, in accordance with social distancing.”

At the Azadpur commodity market, a vital link between rural farmers and urban consumers, traders said that incoming vegetables were still only a fraction of their normal volumes.

They warn of potential shortages and rising prices for urban consumers, and the huge losses suffered by farmers, unless the government speeds up the issuance of curfews for those involved in the trade of goods .

“The movements are very slow, the supplies are very slow,” said Sanjeev Sood, an apple trader at the Azadpur market. “There is bound to be a big impact on availability.”

© Idrees Mohammed / Reuters

In rural areas, farmers do not know if they can harvest or transport their crops, while rural markets – from major stations to urban markets – are closed. Government orders to restart certain farming activities have not reached many rural districts.

“There is a lot of anxiety among farmers because they do not know what the law is today,” said Ajay Vir Jakhar, president of Bharat Krishak Samaj, or Indian Farmers Forum. “The government was not prepared and now it improvises. There is a lot of confusion among farmers as to what is going on and what is not going on. “

Jakhar said authorities are working to resolve these logistical problems. But in the meantime, profit is also an issue. “Traders and merchants will capitalize on the fear that consumers will run out of food,” he said. “This is why supply chains need to be made more efficient.”

Even large e-commerce companies – including Amazon, Walmart-owned Flipkart, Grofers and Soft Basket supported by SoftBank – have encountered serious difficulties as police shut down their warehouses.

The disruption has already had a huge impact on some of India’s most vulnerable people: urban migrant workers who have lost their jobs and are now walking long distances and may find it difficult to get food on the path.

The government will provide aid to the poor for the next three months, but people will have to return to their villages to access them. “We are very concerned about the deaths from starvation,” said Reetika Khera, professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. “People walking like that, they are not very nourished in the first place. They can die from exhaustion. “

For some urban informal workers, the challenge will not only be accessing food, but first having the money to buy food.

“I have the last rupees left after buying 10 kilograms of wheat flour,” said Rameshwar Sain, a 50-year-old masseuse, whose business was destroyed by social distancing. “I don’t know what we’re going to eat after that.”

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