As the 21 days of lockdown is very crucial to contain the Corona virus, it is very important to minimize the people’s movements and interactions, specifically for the essential commodities, particularly the perishable items like vegetables, fruits and milk.
The biggest challenge is to provide these items with minimal physical human touches in order to reduce the chances of transmission during the process. It can transmit either through items or currency notes being used. With this constraint, it becomes a bigger challenge.
A similar situation was faced in the Wuhan city of China during weeks’ long lockdown, and it is right time for us to ponder over two important questions at this stage: 1) how did the Wuhan city effectively manage its lockdown and kept the food supply alive, and 2) can we adopt the same strategy in the Indian case? Let me highlight few facts/observations (solely based on internet and media sources) that how Wuhan city fed its people. Immediately after the lockdown announcement, all the supermarkets, departmental stores and other shops were facing huge demand and, as expected, the shelves were almost emptied within a short time. However, the big players like Alibaba Group, JD.com, Meituan Dianping and others kept its supply through the online platforms with the help of trained and sensitized delivery teams. Payments for these transactions were digital in order to minimize any physical contact, hence avoiding any possible virus transmission. Delivery of the physical items were also followed certain protocols in order to minimize any physical contact.
But, supplying the essential items to around eleven millions population of Wuhan city was a mammoth task due to very limited human resources available. Online platforms found the solution by applying two-fold strategy. First, rather than supplying items individually, they packaged them in bundle of essential items, for instance few vegetables and fruits as a basket. It helped to ease out the process of taking order and delivery time. Second part of the strategy was to take order in bulk from societies and apartments. Supplying the bulk order was much quicker and could able to reach the masses.
Now the question is, can India adopt the same strategy?
The answer is YES and NO. Let me first briefly explain why we cannot adopt the strategy adopted in the Wuhan city. There are two reasons. First, the share of Indian population using the online platforms for the essential goods is very small as compared to the Wuhan city. Hence, it will be very difficult to rely on this option. Moreover, as several news articles have reported that formal sector big players like Amazon, Flipkart, Grofer, Big Basket and others are facing difficulties to cater the sudden surge in the orders, and many of them are stopping their services.
The second reason is much more fundamental and related to the market functioning. Under these exceptional circumstances, relying on the market functioning will be very difficult due to regulatory and enforcement constraints. At the time, when the government and its agencies are working with its much lesser than the full capacity, it will not be wise to expect full enforcement of its regulatory functions for checking the stock and prices of essential commodities. Under such circumstances, it is high likely to observe sharp jumps in the prices due to shortages. The shortages could be real or man-made too. Moreover, the competition – the invisible hand or the spirit of the market – will be at its lowest ebb in these times. Anyways, many wholesalers or bulk suppliers are not even able to participate in the market activities, and, they are not able to supply to retailers. They are either stuck with their large stock or forced to throw the items of very short shelf-life. At this time, such wastage must be avoided.
However, India can still take few clues from the Wuhan city experience. India can follow the logistic solutions applied for large scale supply, but with few modifications according to our situation and practices. India can apply the following modified strategy to feed its large population.
First, Government should take control of the vegetables and fruits from wholesalers and bulk-suppliers. Then, with the help of currently unemployed daily-wage workers (with necessarily, using gloves and masks), we can pack the food items in small packets matching the need of one family. For instance, each packet may have 2-3 vegetables and 1-2 fruits and other necessary items. Supply chain can follow hub & spoke model for each area and its localities within each city. The supply can happen in two ways: by looping in the volunteers group for the last mile delivery along with using technologies; and the bulk orders from the societies/apartments to reduce the logistic burden. This will minimize the physical touch in the entire supply chain, and will also ease out the burden of distribution to masses. Use of digital money like UPI (especially for bulk orders) can help us to reduce the chances of infections from currency notes to the delivery persons and volunteers. This strategy can also provide the employment to a large section of daily wage workers during this difficult time.
Another worthwhile modification is to bring together the existing players (both formal and informal entities) and many organizations (like NGOs or Individuals) that are coming up with many innovative ideas to fill the demand-supply gap. Bringing all the players with better coordination can help us to ease out the biggest challenge to keep feeding all our citizens. In this testing time, government and its machinery may need to be more open and receptive than its usual capacity for the non-governmental actors to participate in the overall efforts in order to accomplish the herculean task with virtually no time at hand to act upon.
Though, we can’t rule out of extending the lockdown period if things don’t fall in line. I wish, it should not happen, but we should be ready for any such situation. Any further extension of lockdown period can make people more anxious and panic about the supply, but a regular supply at intermittent intervals in these 21 days will help to seek more resilient support from all. Hence, it is necessary to set-up a well-coordinated and controlled supply chain during this lockdown.
Chandan Kumar is a researcher, and has completed his Ph.D. in Economics from Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, India. He has worked as a Visiting Faculty at Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology, Amethi, India. His area of research includes Law & Economics and human development issues. He has co-authored two books, including India Human Development Report 2011 published by Oxford University Press.