Just when panicked urban Indians needed them the most, online grocers are being forced shut

Struggling to work.
Struggling to work.
Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
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On day one of the three-week national lockdown announced by India in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, online grocery retailers were mostly shut in spite of the government’s assurances.

At least two such operator cited pressure from local authorities as the reason for stopping its services.

“Dear customer, we are not operational due to restrictions imposed by local authorities on the movement of goods in spite of clear guidelines provided by central authorities to enable essential services. We are working with authorities to be back soon,” reads a note on the app of BigBasket, one of India’s largest e-grocer. BB Daily, BigBasket’s essentials-only app, isn’t selling anything other than milk.

Screenshot of BigBasket app on March 25.
Screenshot of BBDaily app on March 25.

BigBasket supplies groceries and other household items in more than 20 cities, including Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Delhi NCR, Surat, Nagpur, Patna, Indore, Chandigarh, and Tricity, among others. BBDaily currently makes 160,000 deliveries a day.

On March 24, when only pockets of India were under lockdown, subscription-based grocery delivery service MilkBasket said it had to dump 15,000 liters of milk and 10,000 kilograms of fruits and vegetables because the local authorities harassed their delivery executives for “being on the road.” The company said that it would not be able to deliver milk, vegetables, and fruits to Gurugram, Noida, and Hyderabad on March 25 as well.

Rival Grofers isn’t taking any orders either, after its warehouse in Faridabad, near Delhi, was closed by the police on March 24, co-founder and CEO Albinder Dhindsa said in a tweet.

Grofers is operational in over 27 cities, with the capacity to deliver over 25 million products a month.

Amazon Pantry, the e-tailer’s grocery service, was also out of service.

Screenshot of Amazon Pantry on March 25.

The unavailability of these services could debilitate millions of urban Indian households, potentially sparking panic amid the strict restrictions on movement.

The Indian government, though, has made it very clear in the guidelines it issued last night that these services will not be restricted. It has even gone one step ahead:

District authorities may encourage and facilitate home delivery to minimise the movement of individuals outside their homes.

Beyond essential

It is not online grocers along though. Platforms such as Amazon and Flipkart, too, seem to have suspended services.

Screenshot of Flipkart’s website on March 25.
Screenshot of Amazon India app on March 25.

The government’s attempt to keep people indoors is likely to disrupt the supply chain logistics for non-essential items for the duration of the lockdown. Hence, it might be a while before Indians can indulge in retail therapy—both offline and online.