More products, services in ‘essential’ list: Govt to take call soon

The Indian Express, April 26, 2021

Localised lockdowns imposed by several states across India have hindered the e-commerce platforms’ ability to deliver products on time.

The central government is likely to take a decision in the next 10 days over updating the definition of ‘essential products and services’ to include products like mobile phones, laptops, essential apparel, aluminium food containers, infant and childcare essentials as well as other medical electronic equipment, according to sources in the know of the development.

The issue of ambiguous definition of what constituted ‘essential product’ was flagged by several e-commerce platforms with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).

These platforms had, in their representations to various ministries, argued that they be allowed to continue the delivery of all items listed on their websites as most of these deliveries were anyway “contact-less” in nature.

They has also pointed out that several customers were now using some mode of digital payment to pay for these products, thereby making their deliveries even safer.

Localised lockdowns imposed by several states across India have hindered the e-commerce platforms’ ability to deliver products on time. In most of the cases, law enforcement agencies in the states have issued colour-based stickers for vehicles of delivery personnel carrying essential products and services.

Despite that, most platforms had completely suspended the delivery of products such as mobile phones and laptops, which are currently not in the list of ‘essential products’.

“The problem that arises from withholding non-essential products is that after the lockdown is lifted, the pressure for safe and timely deliveries is too much to handle. The customer then expects the products to be delivered within the usual time of 2-3 days, which becomes impossible to fulfill,” a senior executive with an e-commerce platform said.

E-commerce platforms which do not necessarily deal in essential products category have also said that localised lockdowns lead to severe losses and the company cannot “hire and fire” staff depending on these rules, another e-commerce firm executive said.

Experts believe that the government should keep in mind the “dynamic nature” of e-commerce to allow delivery of all products and services. “Since the second wave seems to be even more severe than the first — the infection rate is much faster, even affecting youths — the essentiality of e-commerce needs to be kept in mind while making any policy decisions,” said Pradeep Mehta, Secretary General, CUTS International.

Following the first national lockdown imposed in March last year to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the government had expanded the list to include several items such as tissue paper, oral care products, batteries, surface cleaners and disinfectants in the list of essential items, apart from the usual items like vegetables, fruits, milk and milk products, bakery products, egg, meat, fish, cooking oil, among others.

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