With COVID-19 nearing the two-year mark, the world over has faced many trials attempting to manage and manoeuvre through the pandemic. One of the hardest-hit industries has been global trade and shipping, with many delays, congestion and industrial actions.
Since the start of maritime trade, ocean shipping has been at the forefront of the global economy and even with the advent of air trade, ocean shipping is still a preferred option due to cost efficiencies and bulk and heavy goods freight. Yet, with COVID-19, as the pandemic progressed from early 2020 till date, uncertainties have plagued the globe and one of the hardest hit in terms of economic progress was the way the ocean shipping industry was impacted.
In March of 2020, Sri Lanka was placed under an island-wide curfew with limited operations of many businesses and industries, with limited movement in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. However, this government action also curbed operations for many operations including the ocean shipping industry. From lack of employees at the ports to lack of customs officials and operations, there were many delays in processing calls to port and clearing of shipments that arrived in the country. Many operations were almost completely shut down whilst others operated on extremely low capabilities. This also called for a variety of revolutionary changes in the country, in the way different industries operated. For instance, the world’s oldest operation and largest single-origin tea auction, The Colombo Tea Auction, was held via an online platform and also Sri Lanka Customs (SLC) has made its use of digital tools to maintain the process flow of cargo clearing.
Whilst all these changes were being made, the paperless process for clearing ocean shipping cargo that arrives at the Port of Colombo falls to the purview of the SLC.
With the modernization process, and whilst maintaining the WCO Revised Kyoto Convention and the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, the SLC has been utilizing ASYCUDA (UNCTAD Automated System for Customs Data) which is an integrated customs management system utilized for international trade. Whilst ASYCUDA has been utilized for the past two decades, the move to the e-platform occurred in 2017 and during the pandemic, to further accelerate the processes, scanned copies of supporting documents could be submitted by trade operators too to enforce the paperless flow of information. Furthermore, the likes of Sri Lanka Standards Institute, plant and animal quarantine services, the food inspector service, and national medicinal regulatory approval and other such regulatory approvals can be sent via an online platform electronically to the SLC including the likes of manifests, delivery orders, and other shipping documents.
Having put priority to clear the items listed as essential was made as well as the importation of raw materials or semi-manufactured goods via ocean shipping to ensure that no disruption occurred to the manufacturing industries with the island. Furthermore, the SLC and SLPA (Sri Lanka Ports Authority) have been working together to clear space adjacent to the cargo unloading bays to increase efficiencies despite the inability of importers being unable to pick up their cargo due to the lockdowns and curfews in place and thus with a special agreement made by the SLPA, private container terminal operators, and air cargo authorities have made arrangements to waive demurrage charges presently.