With suitable logistical linkages and state support, e-commerce can help ensure maintenance of supply chains and facilitating access to essential goods.
In a keenly-awaited address to the Nation on April 14, prime minister Modi announced an extension of the previous 21-day nationwide lockdown until May 3 to combat coronavirus. He also mentioned that there would be graded easing from April 20, depending upon the containment of the pandemic, and any spread of hotspots. He also assured that “the country has ample reserves of medicines, food-ration, and other essential goods; and supply chain constraints are continuously being removed”. This was followed by detailed guidelines on April 15 spelling out various relaxations to be effected from April 20, and with what conditions.
Supply chain challenges in a situation of a long nationwide lockdown are immense, and complex. While maintaining the flow of essential supplies, it is equally important that people across the country have access to them, preferably while remaining within their homes. The elderly, and those vulnerable—persons having diseases like diabetes, heart problems—have to be kept securely inside the “cocoon” of their homes to ensure social distancing, while ensuring their needs, including medicines, are being met. Delivery right to their homes, or at their doorsteps may be critical during the pandemic.
Maintenance of a supply chain is a complex process, and can be interrupted, or clogged in many ways—manufacturing shutdowns, transport restrictions, speculative behaviour and panic buying, issues in last-mile delivery, etc. During the crisis, this becomes even more important with regard to essential products. Therefore, in the recent address by the PM, this supply chain issue has been detailed in para 13 of the guidelines, which are as under:
i. All facilities in the supply chain of essential goods, whether involved in manufacturing, wholesale or retail of such goods through local stores, large brick and mortar stores or e-commerce companies should be allowed to operate, ensuring strict social distancing without any restriction on their timing of opening and closure.
ii. Shops (including Kirana and single shops selling essential goods) and carts, including ration shops (under PDS, dealing with food and groceries (for daily use), hygiene items, fruits and vegetables, dairy and milk booths, poultry, meat, and fish, animal feed and fodder etc., should be allowed to operate, ensuring strict social distancing without any restriction on their timing of opening and closure.
iii. District authorities may encourage and facilitate home delivery to minimize the movement of individuals outside their homes.
It would be seen that these guidelines specifically mention operation of all these facilities (including manufacturing), along with shops, without any restriction on their timing of opening and closure, and direct district authorities to encourage and facilitate home delivery. These are welcome stipulations, and will greatly enable and ease access of supplies, without the need for people to go out.
However, e-commerce can play a big role in this regard, and keep the supply chain efficiently functioning. With suitable logistical linkages and clarity of respective roles, and support from government agencies, it can facilitate coordination between local FMCG enterprises and traditional kirana outlets, dynamically connect centres of supply and demand with modern tools of technology, and maintain, if not create, jobs at the same time. It is reported that Flipkart, India’s largest e-commerce company, is already in discussion with several kirana aggregators to start such pilots. These could then be scaled up for doorstep delivery in affected areas, and complement their mutual efforts.
For instance, while the guidelines permit opening of facilities, there would still be a need to evolve a smooth and convenient procedure for prompt issuance of passes to the delivery staff, and to avoid any harassment by the local police. Such passes could be issued online quickly by the designated authorities, or even by enterprises themselves, in accordance with appropriate government guidelines. There could be partnerships between online platforms and offline stores. An online platform like Zomato is being used to connect with brick-and-mortar restaurants to deliver food. This way, you are not only helping local businesses survive, but also providing a link for food to those who may not be in a position to cook. Both online, and offline channels can use the network of logistics firms that provide last-mile connectivity to consumers. Both can collaborate during these times in the interest of efficiency, speed, and consumer welfare.
Any regulatory bottlenecks emerging along the way could be addressed, too. In the UK, for example, the government has temporarily relaxed elements of competition law on “agreements between businesses that prevent, restrict or distort competition” for a limited period for effective response to coronavirus. A temporarily eased ecosystem to maintain the supply chain during the pandemic might enable retailers to work together in the interest of efficiency and to keep the supply lines operational and shops open by sharing logistics infrastructure, and delivery vans. The government may even temporarily relax the ban on the use of plastic bags with suitable disposal mechanisms, etc.
There might also be a need to review the definition of essential supplies. With the announcement of the lockdown being sudden, many enterprises had resorted to working from home. However, in many cases, employers, or employees did not have time to buy necessary equipment like laptops, accessories, wi-fi dongles, etc. Similarly, most schools and colleges had to shift to online classes suddenly, while students and teachers may not have had the gadgets needed to function in this environment.
In the medium term, this throws up the importance of strengthening the IT infrastructure across the length and breadth of the country, encouraging innovations among our youth, and augmenting the architecture for boosting various applications of e-commerce in different sectors. There are issues such as privacy concerns and IPRs, but all these are being separately handled.
There is no doubt that India shall win the battle against this unprecedented pandemic, and will rise in the global arena as a model strong, brave, innovative, and fearless nation. There would emerge countless legends of selfless service, and policy approaches like the Bhilwara model will be studied in global institutions. Like in a war, there will be innumerable examples of corona warriors in various ways, for their bravery, generosity, or innovation—each one doing their bit, each deserving recognition, although none working for it now.
Yet, as the famous saying goes, you do not let a serious crisis go waste. If we look into history, it was the SARS virus of 2003 that impelled the enormous growth of e-commerce in China. The emergence of Alibaba, JD.com, Taobao, Tmall, etc, witnessed explosive growth of e-commerce, on-demand, ultramodern delivery, as well as logistics infrastructure which overtook global trade and commerce. These had an overall positive effect by generating millions of jobs (estimated 30 million in China) and sources of livelihood for micro-entrepreneurs who found a way to market. It also had a significant impact for women, whose movement is sometimes particularly constrained by cultural circumstances.
There will be several innovations in online learning, pharmaceuticals, medical research, and various existing and new applications of e-commerce. It was the Second World War that gave rise to the big economic powers. This war with coronavirus, which has thrown a new gauntlet, can be a huge opportunity for us. There is no doubt we shall rise up to it as in the past, during earlier wars, and the brainpower of Indian millennials, which has been demonstrated around the world, will bring out new solutions to the various current problems.