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Government steps in after retailers and e-commerce players stopped

Avishek G Dastidar, Pranav Mukul, Prabha Raghavan, Sandeep Singh, Deeptiman Tiwary

Minister Prakash Javadekar briefs on the Cabinet meeting.

As the 21-day nationwide lockdown kicked in Wednesday, confusion prevailed among local authorities and police over exemptions, causing major disruptions in last-mile supply of food and grocery items, which are part of essential goods and services and exempted from prohibitory orders.

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While some authorities including Delhi Police, Gurugram Police, Noida Police and Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation instituted mechanisms for allowing home deliveries, including issuing curfew passes to the staff of Amazon, Flipkart, BigBasket, Grofers, Swiggy, Zomato, etc, many raised concerns over non-adherence of Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) orders in different states. Offline retailers such as Future Retail, which operates the Big Bazaar chain, also complained that police confiscated bikes and keys of its staff and even beat them up on their way to stores.

With reports like these pouring in from many cities, the MHA asked all states and union territories to draft standard operating protocols, set up helplines and appoint nodal officers to coordinate delivery of essential goods. “We got reports that labourers and truckers were man-handled in some states when they tried to tell police personnel they were connected with railway freight movement,” a senior government official told The Indian Express.

On Day 1 of the lockdown, freight movement for the Railways slowed down by almost a third due to unavailability of labour for loading and unloading at different locations, even though food grains, milk “specials” etc were run. From around 45,000 wagons Tuesday, it fell to around 32,000 wagons Wednesday despite the transporter pressing into 24x7 service its entire freight moving apparatus.

To address the labour issue in Railways, the Ministry of Home Affairs on Wednesday specifically added “railway freight” to its exempted category list. It also excluded veterinary hospitals, manufacturing units of essential goods including drugs and food packaging material, LPG and petroleum products, shops for seeds and pesticides, resident commissioners of states, forest offices and social welfare departments, coal mines and railway and sea ports operations, apart from certain officers of the Reserve Bank of India, Controller General of Accounts and IT vendors for banks, from its prohibitory orders.

Read | Teething problems, we are streamlining free passage of essentials: Delhi Police chief S N Shrivastava

During the day, many online grocers like Bigbasket announced suspension of operations because of “restrictions imposed by local authorities on movement of goods in spite of clear guidelines provided by central authorities to enable essential services”. Notably, micro-delivery service Milkbasket, had to dump 15,000 litres of milk and over 10,000 kg of fruits and vegetables on Monday, because the firm’s delivery executives were denied entry to more than 50 communities. The company, which delivers to seven locations across the country, has suspended deliveries for Gurugram, Noida and Hyderabad.

E-commerce company Flipkart too suspended deliveries across the board, following reports of police hauling up delivery agents in many cities. “Flipkart has temporarily suspended orders as we assess the possibilities of operating in the lockdown. We are prioritising the safety of our delivery executives and seeking the support of the local governments & police authorities to meet the needs of our customers as they stay home during this lockdown,” a company spokesperson said.

Later in the evening, Flipkart Group CEO Kalyan Krishnamurthy said following assurances of safe and smooth passage of its supply chain and delivery executives by law enforcement authorities, the company was “resuming” its grocery and essential services later today (Wednesday).

No transport and no money, migrants take long road home

Migrant workers leaving the city on Wednesday.

Another online daily delivery company SuprDaily suspended services to Mumbai, Pune, Delhi-NCR and Hyderabad for Thursday. “.we are facing tremendous challenges at the ground level due to the strict restrictions imposed by local authorities and government bodies. Because of this, our delivery executives are finding it very difficult to safely reach our warehouses or customers. They have put themselves at risk to deliver milk and groceries, which are essential commodities, but most have either been asked to go back or face severe consequences. Their safety is constantly at stake and we’re very disheartened by it,” said Puneet Kumar, founder & CEO of SuprDaily.

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Following meetings with local authorities, online grocer Bigbasket said it had resumed operations in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Coimbatore, Indore, Mumbai, Mysuru, Noida, Surat and Vadodara, and expected to become operational within a few days in Ghaziabad, Gurugram, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Nagpur, Patna and Vijaywada. However, the company said it was not operational in Chandigarh, Chennai, Delhi, Ludhiana, Pune and Visakhapatnam, and pointed out that it was not sure, when it will resume services. “In each of these cities, our operations are completely shut due to severe restrictions imposed on our staff and movement of vehicles,” the company said in a statement. Similarly, Grofers, which had suspended operations, resumed services in Delhi and started taking customer orders for essential grocery items.

For offline retailers doing home deliveries, the situation was no different, across big centres including Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. “We are getting supplies from the food companies and have enough stock in our stores and warehouses but the problem is of operating the stores. Our store employees across the country are facing difficulty reaching the stores, they have been beaten by police, their bikes or keys confiscated, despite them showing their identity cards and letters being issued by us that they are needed for essential services,” said a senior executive at Future Retail, which operates the Big Bazaar chain of hypermarkets.

“Our store strength at different places has been hit by around 50 per cent. It is surprising to see the police behaviour is same across the length and breadth of the country where we operate our stores,” an executive with another offline retailer, who did not wish to be named, said.

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To address the labour issue in Railways, the Ministry of Home Affairs on Wednesday specifically added “railway freight” to its exempted category list.

Major retailers and trade associations Wednesday met top officials of the Central government to apprise them about the situation and raised the issue of harassment by local law enforcement agencies. “However, government officials have cautioned that the necessary steps will be taken in a manner, which will not dilute the impact of the lockdown that has been imposed nationwide by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tackle Covid19,” said Praveen Khandelwal, secretary general of Confederation of All India Traders.

Outside the city limits, truckers continued to face challenges. Manoj Kumar Pandey of Pandey Transport Agency in Ambedkar Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, who mostly transports sugar, said while the district magistrate issued letters for transport of essential items, “the vehicles are getting stuck at borders. While the delivery of sugar is smooth, my drivers are facing big challenge while returning with the empty truck, which is getting stopped everywhere. Also, the truck drivers are unwilling to go back. They are also getting concerned on health issues and want to go back to their families.”

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In the midst of the nation-wide lockdown, chemists also pointed to panic buying of essential medicines like anti-diabetic drugs and even paracetamol in the course of a week. This, coupled with unresolved disruptions in their supply, haven’t helped matters for patients needing access to these drugs.

While some measures have been taken by various states to ease confusion whether drug makers are allowed to manufacture at this time, the movement of these products from factories to distributors and wholesalers across state borders is still far from smooth.

“If the situation continues, and the government doesn’t pay attention to this, there will be serious shortages,” said Kailash Gupta, president of All India Chemists and Distributors Federation (AICDF). For instance, around 95 per cent of Delhi’s distributors have shut shop either because their workforce has gone back home to other states, or fearing the wrath of the police. “We can easily think of at least 50-odd medicines, some of them essential like insulin, that we are unable to supply to customers because of the lockdown,” he said.

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In another other, the MHA warned states of rumours over shortage of essential commodities. It asked them to take steps to publicise that adequate food, medical, and civil supplies, are available and that essential services will be maintained.

Separately to protect doctors and paramedics for harassment at the hands of landlords, the MHA issued a directive asking local authorities to “take strict penal action against such landlords/ house-owners under the relevant provisions of law and submit an Action Taken Report on a daily basis to the ministry.