A crisis is always an unfortunate moment for any government. This poses many moral and ethical dilemmas for the choices the government must make while combating the crisis. Consequently, he rarely emerges unscathed for a number of reasons including bad calls, missed opportunities and uneven implementation of good intention.
For example, the moral dilemma facing doctors in Italy in their fight against Covid-19 over allocating the rationed supply of ventilators to younger rather than older patients. However, the dilemma might not have existed if the supply of ventilators would have been sufficient to meet the needs of both types of patients. This was only possible if only Italy had, over time, taken into account its aging population and perhaps changed its existing standards while deciding its budgetary allocations for health care and ventilators.
In a way, then, it won’t be wrong to assume that the government’s readiness to fall into a dilemma is its own decision, aided by existing biases and its failures to plan with a progressive mindset.
India announced a few days ago a total containment of the country to implement social distancing. The experiences of China, Iran, Italy and Russia suggest that social distancing seems to be the only logical tool currently available to ensure that we somehow manage to dodge the bullet. Corona -19 whatever the cost rather than rushing later for ventilators whose availability in India compared to Italy is hardly worth mentioning. But in taking such an unprecedented and drastic measure of complete lockdown, the ethical dilemma for the government is the total elimination of employment for the informal working class – 81% of Indian employees work in the informal economy — whose family budget runs on the daily purchase of 100ml of cooking oil and 50g of glucose biscuits and who barely makes a cut in the social security net.
A crisis is also a time that sadly exposes the government’s past misplaced priorities and renders it rudderless while mounting its defenses against the crisis. The Indian government’s hot potato policy approach to e-commerce since its meteoric growth since 2010 is on display in its fight against Covid-19 as one such case of misplaced priorities.
Since the inception of e-commerce, the government, for various considerations and notions, has always viewed it more as a threat in one form or another and assessed it in an us versus stranger framework. E-commerce has rarely made it on the government books to be appreciated for the enormous benefits it brings to streamlining the supply chain; how it helps create rapid movement of essential and non-essential goods across the country. Policymakers still fail to understand that over the past decade, high-risk private capital has almost exclusively created a network of distribution centers, logistics centers and a last-mile delivery system that today is capable home delivery of many essential items within 24 hours. 72 hours in over 80% of PIN codes in India.
The result of such biased government thinking is that it has consistently sent confusing signals to the e-commerce industry about taxation, ownership, and competition.
Suppose for example that if this was not the case and the government over the past decade has been actively working to build a thriving e-commerce ecosystem in India and has enjoyed creating a vast supply chain and distribution infrastructure capacity.
In this case, the government, while announcing a total lockdown in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, would have been bold enough to say that the e-commerce infrastructure will be put to the test and put to good use to ensure the Last mile delivery of essential commodities to most Indian households across the country in a timely manner. In this case, it would have been safer to recognize that temporary job losses in the informal sector will be partially offset by the creation of other employment opportunities through temporary jobs in the e-commerce industry to manage the rise. sudden and disruptive surge in orders and deliveries across India. The pool of informal labor would then have become soldiers like nurses, doctors and police in the execution of perhaps the largest and only experiment in social distancing in the world. Plumbers, factory workers, taxi drivers and many other unemployed informal workers would have been absorbed into the e-commerce supply chain to make door-to-door deliveries during this time.
In this case, the government would have been careful enough to isolate the e-commerce value chain and mark it as an essential service, just like it did for hospitals, kirana stores and pharmacies. This would then have allowed domestic cargo flights to operate and transport essential goods aided by marked and dedicated trucks to operate on the road for the smooth movement of essential goods. By doing so, the government would have been assured that such a system is able to make the call for social distancing a success without anxiety for the few and despair for many.
But this is actually not the case. A decade of political flip-flopping has prevented proactive listening posts within the government that can take an unbiased and objective view of e-commerce and see it that way. The upshot is that, while citizens are urged to stay indoors, an e-commerce ecosystem well-equipped to respond to this call for social distancing must spend its precious bandwidth either convincing local authorities of the importance of the continuity of its activities. (like many hyper-local delivery chains and majors like Amazon) in these times or is forced to shut it down completely (like Flipkart). Meanwhile, state governments like that of Uttar Pradesh are trying to create a home delivery model for essentials from scratch by hiring trucks, thelas and rickshaws – an area that is not his core business. All that was needed was for e-commerce to be allowed to lead this initiative head-on and who could have employed paid informal labor without work to manage the scale.
Instead, dozens of informal workers who could have been isolated, tested and employed to help the government make social distancing a success are at their wits’ end thinking about their next meal or looking for an escape route to their villages. at the cost of social exposure and a date with law enforcement. Corona is the last thing they think about and it’s all just because of the government’s rigidity of not thinking about e-commerce with an open mind over the past decade. It is therefore fair to say that dilemmas are created by man and not by an act of God.
India is sure to be a different nation in many ways after the 21-day lockdown period. While we emerge barely bruised or unscathed, we will need to ensure that the choices we make now do not push us into similar dilemmas in the future. A proactive approach to e-commerce is one of those wishes.
Ankur Bisen is SVP, Technopak Advisors; Author of WASTED – a book on the sanitation challenge in India, published by Pan Macmillan India.