Enabling a wider framework for disaster management

Government’s efforts and initiatives for the protection of public health are laudable and have achieved the desired results. However, one cannot be unmindful of serious problems and issues that have arisen.

The 21-day nationwide lockdown announced by the government is unprecedented and has affected the movement of good across the value chain. Encouraging measures are being notified by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department for the Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The latter has set up a control room for real-time monitoring of the status of transportation and delivery of essential commodities amid the lockdown.

However, one must factor in uninterrupted transportation of goods right at the beginning of any planning process during crisis periods, because it is precisely necessary for those services to operate unimpeded during a time like this to serve as a necessary lifeline to households and businesses.  Over the last two weeks, it has been clearly seen that operational constraints have crippled several online and offline retailers even delivering essential commodities.

At a time when India’s e-commerce and logistics capabilities have grown immensely and firms are equipped to deliver goods to the remotest of locations, ambiguity in declaring the rules of a nation-wide lockdown, and then clarifying subsequent exceptions piecemeal is damaging, despite being done with best intentions.

For example, reports of over-zealous enforcement of lockdown orders have resulted in a shortage of delivery personnel and labour engaged in loading and unloading of goods. Transportation bottlenecks in some states have led to serious challenges for the suppliers and consumers alike, as only one-tenth of the 12 lakh trucks are supplying goods while close to half are stranded on national highways due to movement restrictions.

So how does India adopt a regulatory framework that is both protective of public health, and of the interest of its citizens at the same time?

Section 10 of the Disaster Management Act and existing legal framework enable the Union government to override all state orders and municipal orders if they are inconsistent with the orders of the Centre. There is a very real possibility of a multiplicity of state orders and even directives from several Union Ministries going forward, as was seen during the initial days of the lockdown. 

Reports of different cities in a single state citing varying criteria to issue permits also compounded the confusion on-ground. 

While the governments at the Centre and the states are trying their best to ensure that the growing demands for medical and essential supplies are met, this should serve as a wake-up call to take cognizance and work towards a more comprehensive and holistic overarching regulation. 

India can take a leaf out of the book of countries such as Australia, Canada, and the European Union (EU) in this case, that have in place new age legislations to deal with public health emergencies with processes that do not undermine the free flow of goods. In addition, Singapore and six other countries including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Myanmar and New Zealand have issued a joint ministerial statement highlighting their commitment to maintaining open supply chains amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The joint statement has recognised the “mutual interest” between countries in ensuring trade lines remain open to facilitate the flow of goods and essential supplies. 

The European Union Commission has also issued guidelines on ‘green lanes’ to the Member States to ensure speedy and continuous flow of goods across the EU and to avoid bottlenecks at key internal border crossing points. Unobstructed transport of goods is crucial to maintain the availability of goods, in particular, essential goods such as food supplies including livestock, vital medical and protective equipment and supplies. 

Once India is over the initial curve of the outbreak, the government may look to assimilate learnings, and streamline exemptions for the logistics sector, and giving all logistics companies the status of the essential services sector as other countries facing a lockdown like the USA, Europe and South Africa.

The need is to put into place a comprehensive regulation for disaster management that includes the benefit of new age technological advancements for health monitoring and the essential movement of goods – early warning systems, AI, social media misinformation, verification of personal data, and goods movement via e-commerce. This would prove to be an all-encompassing regulation which can be enforced uniformly.  While the state governments are doing their bit by putting into play measures such as e-passes, the government needs to consider a mechanism that can holistically put all available resources to use, with minimum hurdles to ensure continuity of supplies in an efficient manner and ease the burden of consumers. The entire supply chain ecosystem, from packaging to distribution and sales should be safeguarded by this mechanism. 

Similar to the measures taken by the government towards ‘ease of doing business’ at regular times, the central government needs to enact a seamless regulatory framework aimed at prevention and elimination of unnecessary hurdles and lack of clarity during a disaster – a system whereby the Centre and states can work together utilising all available sources most optimally.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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