IN THE NOTIFICATION of the Maharashtra government laying down the rules of the lockdown imposed last week, there was a line permitting ecommerce deliveries. But included in brackets was also this: ‘only for supply of essential goods and services’. Once you permit deliveries, does what you deliver really make any difference to the spread of Covid? The same people and companies are going to be doing it, adding nothing to the risk. And if you are putting an entire population under house arrest, then allowing them access to something more than subsistence is only humane. This line in the notification consciously prevents it because what is at play is the power of lobbying.
When the lockdown was being deliberated, small brick-and-mortar retailers began to agitate. They had repeated meetings with the administration, gave an ultimatum, had more meetings and, ultimately, agreed to cooperate. One of their demands was that ecommerce companies were getting an unfair advantage if they were permitted to sell non-essential goods, while they could not. They were right. It was unfair. But only from their standpoint. The lockdown is unfair to everyone. What is just about taking anyone’s liberties away? And how is it fair to not allow consumers non-essential goods and services only because one group is added to all those who are suffering from what the pandemic has unleashed. But because retail traders managed to organise, convey their anger and are also a potential voting block, they are being appeased.
If you want a parallel to make it more relatable, take movies. All theatres have been closed. Multiplex companies could make the exact demand and force the government to stop Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Zee5 and other streaming services. They could say it is unfair that television channels are being allowed to show movies when they have been sacrificed at the altar of Covid and, therefore, everyone from Maharashtra should be actively prevented from seeing any movie whatsoever until restrictions on theatres are lifted. Gymnasiums could argue the same for those who are training people online, or even apps and platforms like Instagram where workout videos are being shown. It seems somewhat ridiculous to deny people movies once the sector fell into the blackhole of destiny. Protecting retailers is no different.
And then consider what is essential. Once work from home becomes the only norm possible, what could be more important than a computer for a professional? But if a replacement is needed, then it is not available now. Or, in the middle of summer, if the air-conditioner conks out, why should anyone not consider it essential? If that is being elitist, then even if you try to buy ceiling fans, the same message of ‘currently not deliverable’ greets you from ecommerce sites. Even the mobile phone, around which most Indian lives revolve now, is something one can’t buy in Maharashtra. Being fair is not as simple as it looks, which is why governments find it easier to mollify those who can speak the loudest.