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#NAMA: How e-commerce companies coordinated with governments during and post the lockdown

“Due to the confusion over what was allowed and what was not during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, among state authorities, and police officials, it led to some level of harassment. Sometimes, they did not understand, and sometimes we did not understand on what exactly was required,” said Amitesh Jha, Senior Vice President at Flipkart, who oversees the company’s supply chain and market operations. However, “two days into the lockdown, at a meeting with the Home Ministry, they basically asked us about the problems we were facing to come up with possible solutions. I was on 25 different WhatsApp groups for each state, which had all the decision makers, police officials, and the authorities were working really hard and fast to address the issues we were facing to make sure that we arrived at what was a most standardised way of operating across states,” said Mohit Sardana, the COO for food delivery at Zomato.

MediaNama spoke to Jha and Sardana last week, to understand how e-commerce companies coordinated with the government during and post the lockdown. We also spoke to them about the technological solutions they employed to meet the demand over the course of the pandemic, and how they dealt with the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the impact on labour, supply chains, and consumer behaviour. MediaNama hosted the discussion with support from Flipkart. Stanford Alumni India Chapter (North & East) was a Community Partner and the Headstart Network was the Startup Ecosystem Partner for this session.

All quotes are edited slightly for clarity and brevity.

How companies worked with state governments to deal with on-ground ambiguity

“What is essential is also a very subjective thing,” Flipkart’s Jha said. “You cannot pinpoint what is essential, and what is not, because when somebody is at home all the time, a lot of things become essential. So for us to figure out what to sell, what not to sell was becoming extremely hard.”

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The issue was later also compounded with different states having different lockdown norms, Zomato’s Sardana noted. He explained: “Chennai, Ahmedabad and parts of Madhya Pradesh, said that restaurants could not be open for dinner. Whereas there were places which could be open into late night as well, as they were only delivery kitchens. So each state had a different way in which they executed things. For close to three months into the lockdown, Lucknow didn’t allow any restaurants to open or for any food delivery to happen, but we were delivering grocery over there”.

To address this ambiguity, e-commerce companies approached state governments, and “figured out what are the right norms of working, what are the right norms of passes and made sure that it was done in a way that was safe for our employees, our customers and for everyone there on the ground,” Jha added. He said that a couple of states also helped Flipkart in formulating the safety norms they needed at their warehouses.

Apart from the ambiguity over what was allowed to be delivered, there was also disparity in what police officials from the same department were allowing, Sardana said. “If I were to take the example of Delhi, the way the police was looking at things in North Delhi was different from the way that police would be looking at East Delhi,” he said. However, “it takes time for information to percolate in the government machinery,” Sardana remarked, adding that “as soon as we raised concerns that things on the ground were happening differently than they should have, the message used to go down to those police officials, telling them to ease up a bit”.

“We had a team that worked along with the government at that time because it was very important for us to understand what was allowed and what wasn’t. And we had a way in which and this was completely technology based, where we could figure out, the Red, Orange and Green zones. We had technology to figure out what pin codes, which addresses could fall in which area and what we can sell in that specific area[…]If a particular state allowed something, we could only show that particular item to users in that state. It was very close coordination with the government to ensure that we are not doing it incorrectly.” — Amitesh Jha, Senior Vice President, Flipkart

How the WhatsApp groups worked: “I think there would have been guidelines to the various state officials to create WhatsApp groups because we started getting calls, and people started adding us to coordination groups set on WhatsApp,” Sardana explained. “Within a day or two of that meeting with the Home Ministry, all these groups across various states had been created. These groups had stakeholders from several e-commerce companies including us, Amazon, Flipkart, and Swiggy, who were sharing, in real-time, the challenges they were facing, and there was action being taken on all of them,” he said, giving a glimpse into the coordination that took place on WhatsApp between state governments and e-commerce companies during the lockdown.

Was it easier for big companies to deal with government? Sardana claimed that there was no difference in the government’s handling of issues when they were raised by bigger companies, versus when they were raised by the relatively smaller ones. “I don’t think that the way they were reacting had to do with the larger companies versus the smaller companies. On the WhatsApp groups, there were multiple other companies that were not so large,” he said. Although, he did admit that “being a larger company was an advantage because in the initial days, these companies were being to join those WhatsApp groups to give their inputs”.

How Zomato got around the various containment zones: Zomato got hold of the zoning data from the government, when it used to announce the red and yellow zones. It also crowd-sourced this data from consumers, delivery people, and merchants, Sardana said. “We asked them to tell us about the areas that were facing challenges in access and were containment zones. We then tried to verify that from other people,” he added.

Planning for future disasters

The COVID-19, which impacted the entire world, was a different beast compared to previous disasters, which were more localised in nature, Sardana said. “This was such a black swan event that I don’t think there were any business continuity plans that were made for a scenario like this where travel across the world has stopped, where people can’t go out of their houses,” he added. To be better prepared for a situation like this in the future, he called for “cross industry sharing of what was done, which helps people prepare for similar kind of disasters”, however, he cautioned that he was not sure “whether this playbook would work for other such black swan events, which could be different as well”.

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