Amid the coronavirus crisis and the resultant lockdown in India, people are finding it increasingly difficult to find essential goods such as wheat, rice, pulses, salt, sugar, etc., according to a survey released by social media firm LocalCircles.
To add to the crisis, there are disturbing reports of delivery personnel from ‘essential services’ being beaten up by the police across the country.
The survey shows that the percentage of consumers unable to get timely deliveries of essential goods from ecommerce grocery apps such as Bigbasket, Grofers, and Amazon has risen to 79 percent from just 35 percent over the last two days. During the same period, consumers failing to find essentials at retail stores rose to 32 percent from 17 percent. The startup spoke to 16,000 people across 164 districts in India for the survey.
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“When this is compared to the (LocalCircles) survey conducted for March 20-22, the percentage of consumers unable to find essential goods has risen sharply,” LocalCircles Chairman and CEO Sachin Taparia said.
On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Narendra Modi – in his second televised address to the nation about the novel coronavirus – announced that the entire country is being put under strict lockdown for the next 21 days. He urged India’s 1.3 billion citizens to not step out of their homes, in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19.
However, he did not mention the state of essential goods’ supply and availability in his speech but tweeted later to clarify that they will continue to be available. Post this speech, several people went into panic buying mode, crowding retail stores, defeating the very purpose of the lockdown – keeping a distance from each other to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Prime Minister Modi put out successive tweets in an attempt to calm nerves and assure uninterrupted supply of essential commodities.
“My fellow citizens, THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO NEED TO PANIC. Essential commodities, medicines etc. would be available. Centre and various state governments will work in close coordination to ensure this.Together, we will fight COVID-19 and create a healthier India.”
His second tweet within an hour of the first, read:
“By converging around shops, you are risking the spread of COVID-19. No panic buying please.Please stay indoors. I repeat- Centre and State Governments will ensure all essentials are available.”
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Before Tuesday’s nationwide lockdown announcement by PM Modi, most parts of the country had already started going into lockdown, restricting movement, travel, and work.
Last week, the Narendra Modi government classified ecommerce and wholesale delivery as a part of ‘essential services’ to ensure that there is no shortage of essential goods.
However, Sachin told YourStory that despite the clear directive from the government, the on-ground situation seemed to be very different.
He says, “The letter from Secretary, Consumer Affairs to the Chief Secretaries of all states advised them to allow all the nodes of ecommerce activities like warehousing, logistics, their vendors, and delivery partners etc., to operate during the lockdown so that a shortage of essential items does not occur. Another meeting was held via video conferencing with Chief Secretaries and State Consumer departments on Monday, advising them to ensure smooth movement and delivery of essential goods, and operations of warehouses stocking and shipping essential goods.”
However, most ecommerce platforms have reported that their trucks carrying supplies, as well as delivery executives in many parts of the country, are being stopped by the police during.
“In other cases, delivery personnel have been barred by local police from even reaching the warehouses,” added Sachin.
Bigbasket Co-founder and CEO, Hari Menon told YourStory that the problem is “manifold”.
“Delivery executives, warehouse staff and people on-ground are scared to come to work and not just because of the virus, but because the cops and traffic police officers are stopping them and not letting them move ahead. Many of them are even getting beaten up,” he said.
Online healthcare platform Medlife, which delivers medicines, has also faced similar problems. CEO and Co-founder Ananth Narayanan said, “The indiscriminate use of force and against delivery personnel specifically exempted by the government and the lifeline during the shutdown will disrupt services. The essential services sector has to be free of harassment and violence.”
On Tuesday evening, just after Prime Minister Modi’s address, one of the startup’s delivery personnel was badly beaten up by police.
“Medlife delivery personnel Prakash in Delhi in the Todapur area was bringing back curfew passes and was hit by the cops, on the way back to the fulfilment centre. In the process, he was injured and suffered bruises on his face and body. We now also have reports of similar incidents in Bengaluru,” he said.
Ananth urged the government to pass on strict instructions to the police in these times of crisis.
“We request the state governments and concerned authorities to ensure that strict instructions are given to the police to permit delivery personnel with valid documentation to perform their duties in these times of crisis.”
Echoing Ananth’s sentiments, Sachin said, “It is critical that the state leadership sensitises district administration and police leadership such that the municipal and police officials at local levels do not create bottlenecks in the supply of essential goods to wholesale and retail stores and homes of people.”
In the meantime, Walmart-owned Flipkart and Amazon India’s pantry service have both suspended deliveries.
Bengaluru Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao, on Wednesday, said that he will be meeting representatives from ecommerce companies operating in the ‘essential services’ space in the evening.
“I have called a meeting of online, ecommerce food, medicine, groceries, vegetables/ fruits or animal products delivery aggregators TODAY at 7 pm at My office, No1, Infantry Road, Bangalore. One representative from each agency may please come. We promise all cooperation, please come,” he tweeted.
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The novel coronavirus has so far killed nine people in India and infected 562 people, according to the Ministry of Health. Across the world, it has taken more than 18,900 lives, and infected over 4,23,890 people, according to real-time population data tracker, Worldometer.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic on March 11.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)