What really is essential?

A colleague is managing without bathroom slippers as these are not part of the essential list allowed during the nationwide lockdown. A relative is working from home with broken spectacles as no replacement is possible at this point. A neighbour has borrowed her mother’s mobile phone as her’s cannot be repaired. Back home the car refuses to start due to a problem in the battery copper connector and that tiny part is not available anywhere. That of course is not any one person’s story but captures the daily struggle that one has to go through if the things that you require most desperately don’t figure in the essential items’ list prepared by the government.

The origin of what makes to the list of essential items is the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. It was meant to ensure delivery of certain commodities or products, the supply of which if obstructed owing to hoarding or blackmarketing would affect the normal life of the people. The list included foodstuff, drugs, fuel etc and from time to time new products were added and removed, sugar and onion being among the notable commodities. It has since been used by the government to regulate the production, supply and distribution of many commodities that are declared essential.

However, during the current lockdown, enforcing special rules for essential products looks unnecessary and illogical, apart from putting alcohol for manufacturing hand sanitizers and face masks as well as gloves in that category to prevent unscrupulous trade practices. To make iron-fisted distinctions between essential and non-essential products is poor policy making.

Why is it that besides grocery and food items, fans have been defined essential but not air conditioners or refrigerators? Why is it that text books can be sold but not any other book? Why can’t we buy clothes, shoes or bed linen during the lockdown?

In a series of notifications over the past one month or so, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has issued the dos and don’ts meant for the lockdown period. To begin with, it allowed only essential products to be sold by both neighbourhood kirana stores and e-commerce companies such as Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart. Then, it eased the rules and permitted e-commerce companies to also sell non-essential products on their online platforms, providing some relief to the citizens. Traders’ lobbies were soon up in arms asking the government for level-playing field, and the easing of rules for e-commerce companies was withdrawn. So once again, it was back to square one with people getting access to only essentials both in physical stores and online.

Within days, the MHA in a late night circular opened up non-essential shops in neighbourhood areas and market complexes but kept things shut in high streets, shopping complexes, multi-brand and single-brand malls. The following day, there was a clarification that only stand-alone neighbourhood shops will be opened in green zones. And it was made clear that rural areas would benefit more than urban localities from this directive. There were caveats like no alcohol and barber shops would be permitted.

The latest rules don’t in any way address the level-playing issues that traders had raised when e-commerce companies were permitted to sell non-essential products. But that’s not all. Even after easing of rules for physical retail, most traders decided to keep the shutters down, fearing the spread of coronavirus and absence of buyers during the lockdown. In a scenario like this, the government can still revisit its stand on not allowing non-essential products on e-commerce platforms as that’s the easiest and safest way to access things that we really need now.

In the midst of all the confusion between e-commerce and physical retail, essential and non-essential, urban and rural, shopping complexes and market complexes, the government is coming up with its own version of e-retail. Meant mostly for remote and rural areas, this combination of online and offline platform could perhaps attempt to ease the problems faced by a large number of people in this country, but it still is not a solution for many others stuck in the lockdown.

Like it is in many other countries around the world, the government should come out with broad guidelines on what should remain open and what should not. Also, it should make things simpler, rather than trying to define essential and non-essential and other similar things. Any trusting government should believe at this time that businesses will not be irresponsible and will not go on a binge during this extraordinary time.

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