While working from home, as all of India is, an executive at a prominent e-commerce firm says everyone has been on the job 17 hours a day. What’s striking is that the employees are not busy brainstorming over the next innovation in e-commerce or planning for the next big shopping festival once things normalise. In fact, a large number of them are engaged in an odd job: Talking to officers across 750-plus districts in the country so that curfew passes could be issued for transporting goods from the warehouse to the delivery hubs across as many pin codes as possible.
At the core of the problem was the fact that there was no uniform norm for anything guiding e-commerce. The rules changed from one state to another, one city to another, one district to another and one day to another.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi
announced the one-day Janata Curfew on March 22, e-commerce was among the exempted services. Then after the lockdown
a few days later, local administration and cops across the states took over, issuing new orders and reversing the old ones. Trucks were stopped and delivery associates were beaten up, resulting in a shutdown and crippling the services for days.
Subsequently, the companies started getting curfew passes, though after crossing several state-level and district-level hurdles. The passes are trickling in, they are not all there yet.
Even as the companies have begun taking orders and deliveries are rolling out slowly, the problem of multiple checks and passes during the lockdown remains. Individual passes have to be secured for each city and each town, making the task of issuing tens of thousands of curfew passes for e-commerce companies alone a humungous exercise. Then there are different formats for states. If West Bengal permits self-certification, Punjab and Maharshtra may not. Within states also, formats change. For example, in Maharashtra, Mumbai and Pune have different rules. While Pune allows e-passes, Mumbai does not.
The e-commerce firms had yet another issue. What’s essential and what’s not. They could sell only essential goods online and every district defined it differently. Now, was blanket to be treated as essential or non-essential? Could diaper be counted as an essential? While working from home, were routers, plugs and laptops essential? No, all these were struck out. E-commerce was told to stick to staple food and medical supply.
Even as coronavirus
is a worldwide phenomenon and e-commerce is delivering globally, why is it that the service got choked in India? A single format and simpler, uniform rules would have kept the service going, as an executive, who’s going through it all, says. In other parts of the world including in the US, managing demand and capacities along with ensuring preventive measures were an issue, but there was hardly any administrative hurdle anywhere. Here in India, the companies had stock but could not deliver because of silos drawn up by municipalities and districts.
Yet another lesson for the states on what not to do in a crisis situation.