COVID-19 Border Lockdown: How Precariously Placed are Our Food Supply Chains?

If there is no improvement soon, there is a possibility of some areas experiencing a shortage of wheat flour, rice, pulses, biscuits, noodles, bottled water.

Today is the fifth day of India’s nationwide lockdown.

The images of India’s poor and marginalised citizens, walking hundreds of kilometres to their homes, are shaking the conscience of the country’s privileged middle class, which is not yet materially affected by the lockdown. They are not likely to remain immune for long.

The home ministry’s order on March 24 allowed shops dealing with food, groceries, fruits and vegetables, dairy and milk booths, meat and fish and animal fodder to function. The order allowed manufacturing units of essential commodities to function and transportation of essential goods was also permitted.

But retail shops are the last destination of the supply chain of food.

In their wisdom, state governments, district magistrates and police superintendents interpreted ‘essential services’ in their own manner, resulting in widespread confusion across the nation. The final authority in implementing the actual lockdown – underpaid policemen on the streets – was least equipped to understand the meaning of essential commodities or groceries, and the importance of ensuring the smooth functioning of a food supply chain.

Also read: Is the National Lockdown in India Constitutionally Valid?

Under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, seven categories are mentioned as essential:

(1) Drugs,
(2) Fertilizers,
(3) Foodstuffs, including edible oilseeds and oils;
(4) Hank yarn, made from cotton;
(5) Petroleum and petroleum products;
(6) Raw jute and jute textiles;
(7) Seeds of food-crops, fruits and vegetables cotton seeds, jute seeds and seeds of cattle fodder.

It is clear that foodstuffs are not detailed out in the EC Act.

However, the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (FSSA) provides a wide definition of food. Anything consumed by human beings is food, including primary and processed food, infant food, packaged drinking water and even alcoholic drinks.

On March 23 2020, the secretary for the Department for Promotion of Industry and Industrial Trade (DPIIT) issued clear instructions to chief secretaries that all food processing companies should be allowed to keep their manufacturing facilities open and any order under Section 144 of CrPC should exempt manufacturing, distribution and sales of such food and beverages. Inter-state movement of goods for the food processing industry, movement of trucks, delivery through e-commerce were specifically allowed.

On March 26 2020,  the food processing ministry’s secretary wrote to Chief Secretaries requesting them to allow movement of raw material, packaging material and finished product. It was also requested that warehouses, cold stores and movement of workers may also be ensured to maintain the supply chain of food.

Migrant workers along with their family members take rest after they set forth to their their villages on foot, amid a nationwide lockdown in wake of coronavirus pandemic, at Lal Quarter Bus Stand in New Delhi, Sunday, March 29, 2020. Photo: PTI

The orders of DPIIT and MoFPI were not passed down by the Chief Secretaries to district magistrates, and state governments instead issued their own orders. After the announcement of lockdown by the prime minister in his speech on March 24, 2020, these orders, clearly defining what was essential food stuff, were ignored in several states across India, causing mayhem in the supply chain of food items.

In several districts, the District Magistrates issued their own orders but it was not understood that food items could be manufactured in a distant place across India and transported across districts within or outside the state. Retail shops of grocery stores are only the last in the food supply chain. They forgot that if manufacturing and seamless movement does not take place across India, food items cannot be available at retail stores.

In view of this confusion between the Centre, state and district, it would not be quite correct to blame policemen on the road if they stopped workers in factories or trucks or vans carrying food items like flour, rice, bottled water, noodles or biscuits. They were least equipped to understand what all can be included in food, grocery or essential commodities.

In several places, food industries are facing shortage of labour as the workers living in nearby areas are not being allowed to go to factories for fear of the novel coronavirus. Factory managers are also afraid of legal action and even arrest in case any worker is detected suffering from COVID-19. In many places, there are reports of truck drivers leaving their vehicles and running away.

Also read: Video of Flour Truck Being Looted Goes Viral; ‘No Wrong was Done,’ Says Truck Owner

The lock down will end only on April 15, 2020. If supply chains do not improve and if food processing units do not run to their full capacity, there is a real possibility of some areas experiencing shortage of processed food, like wheat flour, rice, pulses, biscuits, noodles, bottled water etc. This will also cause rise in prices. In anticipation, the richer sections of our population are already stocking up, further depleting the availability of food items in the market.

So far, the rise in prices is marginal though there are reports of branded wheat flour selling at Rs 40 to Rs 45 per kg. Potato prices have risen from Rs 25 to Rs 35 per kg. Prices of other vegetables have also gone up.

If supply of food items has to be ensured across India, the Ministry of Home Affairs should immediately direct the states that they should ask the district magistrates to allow all the food processing units to procure their raw material, including packaging material, run their operations at full capacity and move their products across India, without any restrictions. It is not possible for food businesses to obtain curfew passes in each district.

The e-way bills generated under GST should be considered as valid curfew passes. The district administration must also assure local residents that workers in the food processing units pose no threat of COVID-19 to them. The industry should follow best practices of hygiene and social distancing.

Shortage of food can cause social disturbance in the best of times. In the current situation of country wide lock-down, it will be catastrophic for Bharat’s poor, who have already lost their jobs and income.

They are in need of immediate help, whether they have reached home, hungry and tired, after walking hundreds of kilometres or they have been prevented from crossing borders.

Siraj Hussain is Visiting Senior Fellow, ICRIER. He retired as Union Secretary, Ministry of Food Processing Industries .