Road Logistics

Transporting Covid-19 vaccines: Government should make Railways the centre of

The vaccine logistics will potentially be an opportune moment for India’s logistics industry to learn the right lessons. (Representational image: Reuters)

When the first consignment of Sputnik-V vaccine from Russia, on board an Emirates flight, reached Delhi airport early November, the onward journey to Central Drug Laboratory, Kasauli, was a dry run for logistics on formidable challenges to transport massive consignments of temperature-sensitive vaccine for deployment across the country quickly. Packed like Russian dolls, Sputnik vials needed to be stored at -20oC throughout the logistics chain.

While ensuring seamless cold chain vaccine operations, all logistics players will need to collaborate for a proactively integrated, speedy, and cost-effective transit, storage, and delivery, an additional mandatory feature for vaccine parcels is the requisite ambient temperature requirement. Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, has been licensed to mass-produce the vaccine developed by Oxford University and Swedish-British drugmaker AstraZeneca, so India is likely to get supplies soon. Unlike the vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna requiring ultra-low (up to minus 70oC) temperature-controlled storage, the AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored in a normal refrigerator.

Like micro-planning for zero-failure strategic operations, the ensuing vaccine supply chain system will test the nation’s ability to minutely and effectively plan, coordinate, and deliver the vaccine strictly as per requirement in every nook and corner. The vaccine challenge, when met efficiently and effectively, will lend new confidence. Life-blood of an economy, logistics, today, is acknowledged as a critical factor for the country’s competitiveness and resilience. It has increasingly shifted from being a cost-centre to a centre of value creation. Characterised by high costs (around 14% of GDP vis-à-vis c. 8% in industrial economies) and low service quality, logistics in India is considered an Achilles’ heel. Logistics costs, if pared by just 2%, can yield $50 billion annually.

To help cut logistics costs, PM Modi called for a “new direction” to infrastructure development, ensuring multimodal coordination. The government created a logistics division in the commerce department, and, inter alia, planned cold chain infrastructure development, especially suited for horticultural products, also pharmaceuticals. The ensuing massive vaccine logistics exercise may well spur the country’s vital logistics sector to revamp and upgrade itself.

The future growth of transportation is likely to be affected by multiple factors—rapid urbanisation, demographic changes, growing middle class, the digital revolution, which will have a major impact on mobility and transport, in both demand and supply. There is a paradigm change in transport itself—an integrated logistics service, involving the convergence of traditional transport infrastructure with the world of information technology.

Transport today is a high-tech industry. As transport costs fall, physical geography matters less. With economies of scale in production, economic geography matters more. With the decline in air transport costs, the price of speed has fallen dramatically. There is the supremacy of demand for precision, speed and coordination in anticipating customer needs. Further, the value of trade is growing much faster than its weight. In recent years, container-isation has redefined the whole transport business, driving a relentless move towards seamless, door-to-door integrated intermodal transportation.

While PM’s call for optimal multimodal connectivity is in line with integration, which is the dominant theme in global logistics management, India has promoted a system with little inter-modal coordination. India’s transport networks, railways, in particular, are severely constrained for capacity.

To scale up investments in infrastructure, the government has been…

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