Indian port shutdowns may affect shipments of emergency items
Published: May 13, 2021 09:55 PM
India epidemic Photo: VCG

India epidemic Photo: VCG

Some Indian ports are feared to face shutdowns during the country's devastating wave of COVID-19 cases, including major ports handling shipments from China. Chinese logistics companies worry that the suspended operations might cause further delays in shipments of emergency medical equipment and cargo.  

Chennai port has significantly reduced its operations, the Global Times has learned. The port decided to cut its staff and facility operation from Monday to May 16, reduce working hours to 11am-6pm each day, and ask other staff to work remotely. 

Chennai is among the top four ports carrying shipments between India and China, alongside New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. It is a leading port for big Chinese phone makers and new-energy vehicle companies, such as Vivo and BYD, which have business operations in India. The reduction in port staff is likely to extend customs processing time from about four days to as long as two weeks. 

"We are telling clients in China to prepare to shift shipping routes from Chennai to other ports, but we are afraid that it will intensify the pressure on the other ports," said Xie Cheng, a manager from Kahan International Import & Export, a major India-China logistics company based in Foshan, South China's Guangdong Province.

Signs of stress have been showing at other ports. Late last month, Kandla port, the nearest port to the Indian capital New Delhi and the largest port in India by cargo throughput, suspended operations from April 24 due to "a sudden massive resurgence in COVID-19 cases." It has yet to announce a reopening. 

On Friday, Visakhapatnam, the biggest port, importing coal to India, announced a suspension of operations until May 19. 

As other ports are getting crowded, emergency medical supplies, as well as telecom devices and clothing, are stranded, despite the government's efforts to prioritize medical supply processing. Local logistics systems are paralyzed by the pandemic, which is sharply reducing the number of truck drivers and delivery staff available to pick up the cargo from customs, according to Xie. 

"In April, almost one-quarter of truck drivers working at the Mumbai port were absent, either because they had fallen sick or that they needed to attend to family members," Xie said. "Now, almost half of the drivers are absent. You can't find a local driver even if you double the payment."

The same is happening to air freight. Medical supplies are piling up at major airports like New Delhi, as airports are struggling to handle unprecedented pressure from rising incoming supplies. Delhi airport received more than 300 tons of medical supplies in five days before May 3, but other media reports said that these products are struggling to reach patients. 

The crowded ports and reduced shipments have pushed up sea and air cargo rates for shipments to India, Tang, a staffer at Kbans International, an international shipping company based in Shanghai, told the Global Times. 

Shipping rates from China to India almost quadrupled in May from March. For a small container to be delivered to India, the rate spiked to almost $2,000 as of the end of last month, compared with $500 at normal times. 

"The rates have gone up because shipments to India are now mostly one-way deliveries," Xie said. "The vessels headed to India can only return with empty containers back to China."

Extended declaration times at Indian customs are also pushing up rates. "We are expecting it will take a much longer time for vessels to return to make another shipment," Xie added. 

Air freight rates more than doubled this month for the same reason, he added.