Debojyoti Ghosh

Major parts of the National Capital Region (NCR) and Hyderabad had to do without their daily essentials—milk, bread, groceries, etc.—on Wednesday as the country woke up to a 21-day national lockdown. In an email to its customers, online milk and grocery delivery startup Milkbasket informed that it won’t be able to deliver any fresh milk orders in Gurugram, Noida, and Hyderabad on March 25.

With prime minister Narendra Modi announcing a complete lockdown across the country starting March 25 to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, online grocery stores and e-commerce companies witnessed a sudden halt in their delivery services, leaving customers in the lurch. While some orders stood cancelled, others were delayed.

In spite of the government’s assurances of business as usual for e-commerce companies delivering essential goods such as groceries, food, fruits, vegetables, dairy and milk products, medicines and medical equipment, many online retailers said pressure and harassment on the road by local authorities led to a shutdown in delivery services.

“Milkbasket vendors and employees were harassed and held by authorities for being on the road,” the company said, about the hassles it faced on Tuesday, even before the national lockdown had been announced. Milkbasket could not deliver its milk orders on the morning of March 24, barring Bengaluru and a few hundred households in Noida and Gurugram, where it could fulfil only about 40% of them.

Similarly, larger online grocery store bigbasket posted on Twitter on Wednesday morning, “We are not operational due to restrictions imposed by local authorities on movement of goods in spite of clear guidelines provided by central authorities to enable essential services. We are working with the authorities to be back soon.”

At present, bbdaily, an essentials-focussed delivery service from bigbasket, clocks in about 160,000 deliveries a day, including fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, dairy, eggs, breakfast cereals, personal care, and baby care products.

In a Twitter post on the night of March 24, Albinder Dhindsa, co-founder and CEO, Grofers, said that the company’s warehouse in Faridabad had been closed by local law enforcement authorities. “While we understand they are doing their duty, essential items will be denied to 20,000-plus households in Faridabad and Delhi every day. We need help in sorting this out,” he said. On the morning of March 25, Dhindsa updated the post: “We have been able to open the facility. Working on resuming supplies within 24 hours. Thanks to CP Faridabad and the entire administration.” Later in the day, Grofers posted on Twitter that it will start accepting orders and delivering essential groceries at the earliest.

“Over the last few days, we faced a few hiccups in our operations which led to a backlog of around 4 lakh orders. However, the local authorities are helping us in resuming our operations. We are closely working with them and with their support, we will soon start accepting orders on our platform,” Dhindsa told Fortune India.

For the past few days, the Coronavirus scare, and an imminent lockdown have made many customers in India stock up on essentials. As consumers turned to shopping online for essentials to avoid going to crowded stores, online grocery retailers and e-commerce companies saw a sudden spurt in demand in the last one week. bigbasket recorded a 2x growth in traffic on its platform and revenue, while its basket value has seen an increase of 15%-20% after the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak. Similarly, smaller rival Grofers saw a rise of 65% in the number of orders and 20% in order value across India.

At present, there are 512 active Covid-19 cases in India. According to the health ministry, a total of 40 people has been discharged from hospital and the number of deaths in the country due to Coronavirus stood at ten.

Meanwhile, e-commerce major Flipkart, which had earlier suspended taking orders temporarily citing safety of its delivery executives, is working with the local authorities to resume its services.

“We have been assured of the safe and smooth passage of our supply chain and delivery executives by local law enforcement authorities and are resuming our grocery and essentials services later today. We continue to strengthen our supply chain in a safe and secure manner for our employees and consumers alike, and will leverage our efficient and robust delivery network to make products available to customers across the country and support the nation in this time of crisis through sanitised and safe supply chain,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, CEO, Flipkart Group.

Amazon India, too, is working with the central government and local authorities. “Asking them to help us urgently with detailed on-ground operating procedures, to ensure delivery of priority goods like household staples, health and hygiene products, sanitisers, baby formula, and medical supplies safely across the country to our customers’ homes without any disruption. We continue to prioritise safety of our delivery associates and our teams at our sites with a number of precautionary measures,” said an Amazon India spokesperson.

E-commerce company Snapdeal pointed out that it is working region-wise to complete as many deliveries of essential goods to its customers as possible according to local operating conditions. “We are also actively supporting central and state authorities to help streamline issues for e-commerce operations in order to effectively serve the needs of consumers.” said a Snapdeal spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Alibaba-backed bigbasket said that as of the evening of March 25, it was operational in cities such as Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Coimbatore, Indore, Mumbai, Mysore, Noida, Surat, and Vadodara.

“Over the last few days, we were affected by severe restrictions imposed on the movement of our staff and vehicles, but thankfully that is getting much better. Moreover, due to high demand, we are booked for the next four-five days, and this situation could continue if the demand continues to remain high,” bigbasket said in a statement, adding that in cities such as Chandigarh, Chennai, Delhi, Ludhiana, Pune, and Visakhapatnam, operations were completely shut down due to severe restrictions.

Till these teething issues are sorted, consumers who are restricted to their homes would be a hassled lot.

Follow our complete coronavirus coverage here.

(Additional inputs by Arnika Thakur and Anshul Dhamija)

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