Ramesh Rambiya, a Navi Mumbai-based trader, has rice loaded in five trucks waiting to be unloaded. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, there are no labourers available in an otherwise busy Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) market teeming with people ready to do the job.
“The trucks came from Delhi on Monday. But the unloading has yet to be done as most of the labourers have left for their villages. With great difficulty, I managed to get some of them from the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation and get two out of five trucks unloaded,” said Rambiya.
Rambiya’s is one of the 700-800 lorries in the APMC that have arrived from the northern India ferrying grains and other essentials but have remained unloaded due to an acute shortage of labour. The market that feeds the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and several parts of Maharashtra has been shut since the announcement of the 21-day lockdown. Low on supplies of fruits, vegetables and other essentials, it is expected to open on Saturday for a brief time, according to one of the traders.
Close to 500,000 truckers, including the cleaners, were stranded at the state border check posts across the country till Wednesday as the policemen posted there would not allow them to go ahead due to the lockdown. Following an intervention by the road transport department and pressure from the trade bodies and transport businesses, the trucks were allowed to leave for their destinations on Wednesday midnight, said SP Singh, senior fellow at Indian Foundation of Transport and Research Training. But with factory gates, warehouses, and APMCs shut, they are now piling up at the entrance. “It’s like landing from fire into firing pan,” said Singh.
Owing to the lockout, only half of 5 million medium and heavy commercial vehicles are plying on the highways, according to the Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training.
Meanwhile, the struggle for food continues for the truckers. With dhabas shut they have been surviving by cooking the cereals and grains they carry along for the long journey, said a transporter. Some states, including West Bengal and Odisha, have issued notifications to district magistrates to allow smooth movement of trucks carrying essentials. They have also ordered dhabas, restaurants, repair shops, and petrol pumps to remain open every 20 kilometers.
“We are trying our best to help the truckers. But there is only so much that we can do. Our hands are also tied,” said Balmalkit Singh, chairman of the All India Motor Transport Congress.
The Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade has set up a control room to monitor in real-time the status of transportation and delivery of essential commodities.