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As its engines of commerce begin to whir, Maharashtra is staring at an acute shortage of workers to unload cargo at ports, fill ATMs with cash and staff neighbourhood stores, clouding the prospects of an immediate return to normalcy.

“The port industry has been active through the lockdown because it was an essential service," said Dhruv Kotak, managing director of Mumbai-based logistics firm JM Baxi. “Container freight stations and inland container depots evacuated record amounts of cargo and ensured that ports didn’t get choked. Nhava Sheva (Mumbai’s primary container port) did not shut down like some other private ports in the country did. But beyond this, general transportation and logistics are limping back to life slowly because there aren’t enough drivers. Many left when the lockdown started, some who stayed faced harsh treatment. I think we will need confidence-building exercises to bring back migrant labour."

The Maharashtra government had allowed a partial lifting of lockdown restrictions from Monday, paving the way for resumption of farming and agri-related activities, road transport, e-commerce and home delivery services and interstate movement of goods. “I believe we were overoptimistic this week, expecting more action on the ground," Kotak said. “But things are going to be a slow. Everybody is up to date on information about the spread of the disease and will look to their personal safety."

“There is a big gap between demand and supply in logistics at the moment," said Rohit Jain, chief marketing officer of Mavyn, an online trucking platform that serves top pharma and FMCG companies. “Earlier, at a warehouse, the truck loading process would take 3-4 hours. Now, with limited manpower at the warehouse and social distancing norms, the same process takes more than a day. Truck drivers now only want to pick destinations where they are assured of a return trip; otherwise, it’s not viable to come back empty with the prolonged time it takes." Outside of fixed contract routes, trucking rates have gone up 15-20% to meet the surge in demand with limited supply.

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