The Centre’s last-minute reversal of its decision to allow e-commerce companies to resume deliveries of ‘non-essential items’, as part of an easing of the lockdown curbs , is welcome given that India is still not out of the woods in its pandemic fight. On Sunday, the Home Ministry directed States to ensure that the movement of vehicles used by e-commerce operators for transporting non-essentials be ‘excluded’ from the list of additional activities that would be allowed from April 20 to mitigate public hardship. While the Ministry gave no reason for its U-turn, it would appear wiser counsel prevailed after some Opposition parties and the retail trade had raised the issue of a lack of level-playing field for brick and mortar retailers. Also, though it is true that the online purchase of a product and its doorstep delivery by an e-commerce firm minimises human interaction to a negligible level unlike a purchase in a store, the fact that the lockdown is aimed at restricting movement to the barest minimum in order to break the chain of transmission necessitates limiting exemptions. And with non-essential items ranging from apparel to books to electronics and home appliances constituting the bulk of the listings on e-commerce sites, every additional product category would involve that many more people getting activated along the supply chain — from a producer or supplier to the transport operators and additional delivery persons.
To be sure, given the immense economic costs associated with the shutdown especially to individual livelihoods, it would seem a reasonable argument that as many sectors and jobs that can be allowed to reopen with stringent safeguards mandated ought to be permitted to do so in a phased manner. Clearly, that was the underlying rationale behind the Centre’s April 15 missive. Among the sectors that can resume are agricultural and horticultural activities, banking, cargo transportation, construction, and manufacturing of specified goods including packaging material. Interestingly, while self-employed tradesmen such as electricians, plumbers and carpenters have been allowed to resume work, they would be unable to ply their trades if their customers are unable to furnish the relevant material at the work site because the shops and e-commerce firms selling these ‘non-essential’ goods are yet to resume operations. Lost here though is the very definition of what ought to be deemed essential. Is a packet of ‘essential’ cheese slices more vital than a ‘non-essential’ laptop for a person working from home or attending online classes? Also, as the lockdown extends to over a month, what might have been non-essential initially might turn essential later. Still, protecting lives must ultimately be prioritised over allowing commercial activity even when the line between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ purchases remains a blur.