The Centre on Sunday rescinded permission to e-commerce firms to resume the sale and delivery of non-essential items from Monday, a move that seems to have been prompted by protests by local traders whose businesses will continue to face restrictions during the extended national lockdown till May 3.
The home ministry spokesperson said the process of permissions and revisions was dynamic and when the list of items that e-commerce firms would have been able to deliver was examined, it was found to be too extensive, raising concerns of the lockdown to contain Covid-19 being compromised. Home ministry officials also said renewed curbs on e-commerce will ensure a “level playing field” with small retailers. As of now, only kirana shops, meat, fruit & vegetable sellers and pharmacies are allowed to function.
The revision was accompanied by a dose of politics. Congress had on Saturday said the rules favoured e-commerce platforms. “While their (local traders) shops are locked down for the last one month, their main competitors are open and have been allowed to sell non-essential items online. This is injustice to retailers and the government should not allow this,” Congress leader Ajay Maken had said.
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Government sources said while Congress was supporting this position, states where it was in office, like Rajasthan and Maharashtra, were opening up all goods for e-commerce.
In an order on Sunday, home secretary Ajay Bhalla excluded from the revised MHA guidelines issued only four days ago the sub-clause allowing e-commerce companies to function and their vehicles to ply with the necessary permissions in non-containment zones from April 20.
The delivery of essential items, such as groceries and hygiene products, by e-commerce companies will, however, continue.
Traders’ associations, including organisations aligned with BJP and RSS, had protested against the move to remove all curbs on e-commerce firms, saying the decision placed them at a disadvantage. Associations like CAIT (Confederation of All India Traders) welcomed the home ministry clarification.
The rethink by the home ministry comes even as e-tailers had started accepting advance orders for phones, tablets and TVs. Since these were to be delivered only from April 20, the e-commerce companies may now refund the payments.
Sources said there was a realisation within the government that allowing e-commerce in non-essential items while keeping local retail stores closed — unlike in the case of essential items which can be sold by both — would discriminate against the latter. Home minister Amit Shah, while acknowledging the small retailers’ concerns, is said to have given the green signal for reimposing the ban on sale of non-essential items by e-commerce firms.
CAIT secretary general Praveen Khandelwal on Sunday said the ministry had accepted its objections. Joint secretary in the home ministry Punya Salila Srivastava said at the daily joint briefing on Sunday that the Covid-19 situation was very dynamic and the government was taking decisions on a day-to-day basis.
When the government realised that the list was long and allowing non-essential commodities to sell through e-commerce platforms may affect proper implementation of the lockdown, the decision was reviewed and reversed, she said.
Meanwhile, the home secretary on Sunday wrote to all states and Union territories clarifying that while operations of e-commerce companies for non-essential goods stand prohibited, they may continue for essential goods.
Bhalla requested the chief secretaries to clarify this to all field agencies and also adequately disseminate it among the general public so as to ensure the smooth movement of the supply chain of essential goods, including by e-commerce firms.