Amid the 21-day nationwide lockdown, local authorities and police remained confused over exemptions, causing disruptions in essential goods and services, the last-mile supply of food and grocery items, which are exempted from prohibitory orders.
Several authorities have raised concerns over non-adherence of Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) orders in several states. Offline retailers like Future Retail accused police of confiscating their staff's bikes and keys, and even beating them on their thanks to stores.
"We got reports that labourers and truckers were man-handled in some states once they tried to inform police personnel they were connected with railway freight movement," a senior government official told The Indian Express. The MHA has directed all states and union territories to draft standard operating protocols, found out helplines and appoint nodal officers in an effort to coordinate essential goods' delivery.
Unavailability of labour for loading and unloading at different locations led to freight movement for the Railways slowing down by almost a 3rd . to deal with this issue, the Ministry of Home Affairs on March 29 specifically added "railway freight" to its exempted category list.
Veterinary hospitals, manufacturing units of essential goods including drugs and food packaging material, LPG and petroleum products, shops for seeds and pesticides, resident commissioners of states, forest offices and welfare departments, coal mines and railway and seaports operations, aside from certain officers of the Federal Reserve Bank of India, Controller General of Accounts and IT vendors for banks, were also excluded from its prohibitory orders.
Many online grocers like Bigbasket suspended operations due to "restrictions imposed by local authorities on the movement of products in spite of clear guidelines provided by central authorities to enable essential services".
Micro-delivery service 'Milkbasket' had to dump 15,000 litres of milk and over 10,000 kg of fruits and vegetables after over 50 communities denied entry to its delivery executives. it's suspended deliveries for Gurugram, Noida and Hyderabad.
Online daily delivery company SuprDaily suspended services to Mumbai, Pune, Delhi-NCR and Hyderabad for March 26. "We face tremendous challenges at the bottom level thanks to the strict restrictions imposed by local authorities and government bodies. Our delivery executives are putting themselves in danger to deliver milk and groceries, which are essential commodities, but most have either been asked to travel back or face severe consequences," said Puneet Kumar, founder & CEO of SuprDaily.
Bigbasket has now resumed operations in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Coimbatore, Indore, Mumbai, Mysuru, Noida, Surat and Vadodara, and expected to become operational within a couple of days in Ghaziabad, Gurugram, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Nagpur, Patna and Vijaywada. Grofers, which had suspended operations, resumed services in Delhi.
The situation was no different for offline retailers doing home deliveries.
"We are becoming supplies from the food companies and have enough stock in our stores and warehouses but the matter is of operating the stores. Our store employees across the country face difficulty reaching the stores, they were beaten by police, their bikes or keys confiscated, despite showing their identity cards," said a senior executive at Future Retail, which operates the large Bazaar chain of hypermarkets.
"Our store strength at different places has been hit by around 50 per cent. it's surprising to ascertain the police behaviour is that the same across the length and breadth of the country where we operate our stores," an executive with another offline retailer, who wished to stay anonymous, said.
Major retailers and trade associations Wednesday met top officials of the Central government, raising the difficulty of being harassed by local enforcement agencies.
"However, officialdom has cautioned that the required steps are going to be taken during a manner, which can not dilute the impact of the lockdown that has been imposed nationwide by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tackle Covid19," said Praveen Khandelwal, secretary-general of Confederation of All India Traders.
Truckers outside the town limits continued to face challenges. "The vehicles are becoming stuck at borders. While the delivery of sugar is smooth, my drivers face an enormous challenge while returning with the empty truck, which is getting stopped everywhere. Also, truck drivers are unwilling to travel back. they're also getting involved on health issues and need to travel back to their families," Manoj Kumar Pandey of Pandey Transport Agency in Ambedkar Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, who mostly transports sugar, said.
Chemists have raised concerns about panic buying of medicines like anti-diabetic drugs and even paracetamol. "If things continue, and therefore the government doesn't concentrate to the present, there'll be serious shortages," said Kailash Gupta, president of All India Chemists and Distributors Federation (AICDF).
A large number of Delhi's distributors have shut their shops in fear of the police, or because their workforce has gone back home to other states. "We can easily consider a minimum of 50-odd medicines, a number of them essential like insulin, that we are unable to provide to customers due to the lockdown," Gupta said.
The MHA has warned states of rumours which may emerge on the shortage of essentials and urged them to require steps to publicise that essential services will still be maintained which adequate food, medical and civil supplies will still be available.
The MHA, to guard paramedics and doctors from harassment, has issued a directive asking local authorities to "take strict penal action against such landlords/ house-owners under the relevant provisions of law and submit an Action Taken Report on a day to day to the ministry".