India has approved two COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use.
In the last few days, the focus has shifted from the coronavirus to its vaccine and after India gave an emergency nod to two jabs, logistics have taken the centre stage. While the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was globally the first to get the emergency nod, needs to be stored at minus 80 degree Celsius, the two jabs cleared by India have to be transported at 2-8 degree Celsius.
The Serum Institute of India (SII), which has partnered with AstraZeneca for the Covishield, is located on the outskirts of Pune. The company is the world's largest vaccine producer and was founded in 1966. While the company exports to more than 100 countries, Pune does not have a full-time civilian airport that can support large-scale cargo operations.
As SII starts shipping millions of doses of Covishield across India and caters to orders from across the world, the Pune airport, which is a civil enclave and controlled and owned by the Indian Air Force, is undergoing runway resurfacing. It is closed from 8 pm to 8am, severely restricting the hours of operations and shipping of cargo.
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While there is an issue with the restricted watch hours, the airport due to its shorter runway and lack of apron space cannot cater to wide-body aircraft—both passenger and cargo.
Industries around Pune—pharma as well as non-pharma—have to rely on the Mumbai airport for exports or ship them via Delhi, Hyderabad or Bengaluru. The airport also lacks space to build a larger cold storage area, much needed for vaccines or other pharma products.
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At a time when India is being projected as the “pharma factory” of the world, one of the few areas where the country does better than neighbouring China, it is an irony that pharma clusters are not well connected or lack air infrastructure for exports.
Where are the pharma clusters?
Indian pharma is spread across regions. Some states like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, which are hilly and have seen little industrialisation, welcomed the pharma industry for its relatively non-polluting nature.
There are pharma hubs at Baddi in Himachal Pradesh, Pantnagar-Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Ankleshwar-Vapi-Vadodara-Ahmedabad belt in Gujarat, Pune and Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Bengaluru-Mysuru in Karnataka and areas around Hyderabad, Chennai and Puducherry also have a thriving pharma industry.
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While the pharma clusters around Bengaluru and Chennai are serviced from their airports, which have good global connectivity and freight operations, the rest have one challenge or the other. The nearest airport for Baddi is Chandigarh, another airport owned and operated by the Indian Air Force. Same for Sikkim, which is serviced by the airport at Bagdogra in neighbouring West Bengal. While the air force has always gone out of its way to accommodate missions, issues related to land, safety and security have meant that runway extension, expanding apron area, setting up cargo operations has not been possible.
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What are the challenges?
The Ankleshwar-Vapi-Vadodara-Ahmedabad belt along with Pune and Aurangabad rely on the Mumbai airport for exports. The clusters in the north dependent on the Delhi airport and the one in Sikkim relies on Kolkata. Multi-modal transport increases not just the cost of operations but also the risk of contamination or inability to maintain the desired temperature that can cause quality issues.
Apart from multiple sops, availability of power, infrastructure and manpower, exports and in turn foreign exchange would be earned if airports with adequate infrastructure are close to the production areas.
An airport cannot be built overnight but with the government focusing on infrastructure, there cannot be a better time to plan for the future as focus shifts to Mission Atmanirbhar and exports to make India a manufacturing hub.
A new civilian airport for Pune has been in the pipeline for more than two decades. The project has moved from one land parcel to the other multiple times and the cost of acquisition has shot up manifolds.
Bagdogra airport has no land for expansion. While it does handle limited international traffic—notably that of Druk Air from Bhutan and onwards to South East Asia—the infrastructure is not enough to cater to regular international cargo.
The infrastructure needed for pharma, especially the cold chain logistics, can easily be extended to farm produce, which will also aid the government's goal of doubling farm income. Hopefully, the coronavirus outbreak will speed up multiple projects that have been stuck in time.( Ameya Joshi runs the aviation blog Network Thoughts)