Fifteen days into the 21-day nationwide lockdown, a pivotal question to have emerged is how to maintain the flow of essential supplies. Equally important is how to ensure that people have access to them, preferably while remaining inside their homes. This question becomes even more critical when you consider life after the current phase.
Even if the lockdown is not extended, the situation may warrant localised lockdowns in hotspots. At the very least, there is a high probability of continued social distancing, either voluntary or government-supported. The crux of the problem is how to pause social and parts of business life without grinding the entire economy, including essential supplies, to a painful halt.
But is this possible? Are lockdowns and social distancing, and continuous availability and offtake of supplies mutually exclusive? Do they need to be so? Fortunately, our economy had already evolved the answers, even if they were not available across the entire geography.
Besides, there is much to learn from the experience of other countries, which are ahead of us on the pain curve and have had some success in countering it while ensuring that life can go on. In China, for example, ecommerce was a community mainstay in helping Wuhan mitigate the effects of a lockdown.
In India, though, even before the advent of ecommerce, many kiranas and medical stores had introduced systems to home-deliver goods. The advent of ecommerce added an additional layer of convenience with guaranteed service levels.
However, many people still preferred to go to the store for a variety of reasons ranging from choosing the products themselves, to comparing alternative products and prices on the shelves. Covid-19 has dramatically changed customer behaviour.
Only time will tell if this is permanent or temporary. In the current anxiety-laden environment, customers are willing to forgo ‘touch and feel’ for the safety of home delivery. Also, many traditional retail stores are also increasingly getting integrated into the business-to-business (B2B) ecommerce supply chains, blurring the distinction between physical retail and ecommerce.
In the initial days of complete lockdown, little distinction was drawn between people who are vital to this supply chain and people who were not. Exemptions were largely confined to healthcare-related personnel, police, media and executive officials of the administration. As a result, the supply chain was severely affected.
Supply chain hindrances eventually translated into challenges that citizens faced in getting their basic needs. In the face of such a large-scale disruption, authorities need to mobilise strong supply links and the ability of traditional retail and ecommerce players to undertake home delivery.
These companies need to be enabled much more — not less — to bridge the key gaps that have emerged right across the supply chain, from manufacturing to retailers, and from retailers and warehouses to last-mile customer delivery. This will provide muchneeded functional support to get the demand-supply cycle moving again.
Some channels are reporting a drastic drop of as much as 80% of their delivery personnel due to their movement out of their present location. So how does one distinguish between people who are part of the ecosystem outlined above and enable them to continue doing their job in a hurdle-free environment? Traditional systems of issuing passes — akin to curfew passes — are archaic and will fail.
Even with technology solutions, the administration would simply be unable to effectively cope with the deluge ofexemptions that would be required to keep these essential supply lines open without completely opening the floodgates and subverting the very purpose of the lockdown. Technology can still provide a solution, though.
Governments can delegate the power to issue mobilebased e-passes to organisations and businesses part of this ecosystem, while the total number of such exemptions any organisation can issue can be assigned and controlled by government through technology. Such a system can be set up overnight with no infrastructure requirement.
Online businesses and channels can manage crisis-driven surges in demand, because they have real-time information on region-wise consumer-buying patterns, which can help local government track demand and plan supplies of essential items.
The home-delivery facility of traditional retail stores and the network of fulfilment centres, logistics hubs and a last-mile delivery system set up by online businesses is capable of doorstep deliveries of many essential items within 24-72 hours in more than 90% of PIN codes.
Given the spike in demand for home deliveries in this lockdown period, such establishments could also gainfully employ an out-ofwork informal workforce to manage the scale. Most significantly, these are opportunities for the people who need them the most: the unorganised, migrant, minimally educated citizenry at the lower end of the economic ladder.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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