Updated: April 20, 2020 4:23:21 am
A DAY before online retailers were to start deliveries of non-essential items, the Ministry of Home Affairs on Sunday put a spanner in their works by restricting e-commerce to essential goods and groceries only.
In its April 15 guidelines, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had said e-commerce companies would be allowed and “vehicles used by e-commerce operators will be allowed to ply with necessary permissions”.
After the MHA’s latest order, Piyush Goyal, Minister of Commerce and Industry, tweeted that e-commerce companies can only supply essential goods during the lockdown. “This will create a level playing field for small retailers,” he said.
Notably, following the Centre’s April 15 notification allowing e-commerce players to operate, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) wrote a series of letters including to Goyal and Home Minister Amit Shah seeking intervention on states’ decision allowing online retailers to sell non-essential items.
Following Sunday’s order, CAIT Secretary General Praveen Khandelwal said in a tweet, “Seven crore traders of India @TEAMCAIT express gratitude to PM Shri @narendramodi HM Shri @AmitShah Defence Minister Shri @rajnathsingh CIM Shri @PiyushGoyal UDM Shri @HardeepSPuri for notification prohibiting E commerce to trade in non essential Commodities. “
Uncertainty over policy
e-commerce companies were all geared up to resume delivery of non-essential items as well from today. The MHA order has resulted in uncertainty not just for online retailers, but also in terms of policy signals to the entire business. The online platforms cater not only to customers and suppliers, but provide jobs too.
When contacted, Guruprasad Mohapatra, Secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, said, “The MHA guidelines say that any entity should only deal with essential items. This includes e-commerce companies also.”
A senior government official, however, said there was an interpretation that e-commerce companies could sell both essential and non-essential items, while traditional retailers could only sell essential goods. “There will now be parity between the two,” the official told The Indian Express on condition of anonymity.
NASSCOM President Debjani Ghosh said the decision could have been “better thought”. “A lot of the e-commerce cos have invested in planning for the 20th. And most don’t have deep pockets to handle these kinds of reversal in decisions. The focus, I feel, should have been on ensuring adequate safety protocols,” Ghosh said in a tweet.
Online retailers had already started taking steps to resume operations. Shortly after the issuance of government’s guidelines on April 15, Gurugram-based e-commerce firm Snapdeal had said it was preparing to scale up operations to meet the requirements of its users — both buyers and sellers.
“Summer apparel, kitchen accessories, small appliances like headsets, tablets for school work, home printers, competitive exam books etc will be in high demand. Nearly 50 per cent of the sellers will be in a position to resume operations and more are likely to follow the lead after assessing the local situation in their respective areas,” it had said. On Sunday, the company said in a statement that it will continue to operate in “complete compliance” with the revised guidelines.
Reacting to the government’s decision of pulling back the permission to sell online non-essential items, e-commerce companies also pointed out that the need of people who are staying at home during the lockdown has now expanded beyond essential items and urged the government to expand the definition of essential goods.
Responding to a query by The Indian Express, an Amazon India spokesperson said: “The new guideline will disappoint not only the consumers whose list of essentials had expanded to work from home and study from home products but also the thousands of small businesses, sellers and manufacturers across the country, who had geared up in the last 48 hours to provide millions of people with safe access to products. On behalf of consumers and sellers, we hope that this situation is rectified soon so that the urgent need of consumers is met and that there is revival of economic activity”.
Concurring with Amazon India, Sanjay Sethi, CEO and co-founder of online marketplace Shopclues said: “Extension of lockdown while maintaining the supply of essential goods was necessary to balance the needs of economy and the risk to public health. Now that the lockdown will be way past its initial 21 days period, it is imperative to expand the definition of essential goods. In fact, not doing so could be counterproductive at this time. While the entire nation is forced indoors and working from home for extended period it is important that besides food, groceries and medicine, we also ensure supply of other critical items like kitchen ware and small kitchen appliances, personal hygiene items, inner wear, work from home essentials like phones, laptops and accessories etc.”
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