Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was delivering his address to the nation on Tuesday evening announcing a 21-day nationwide lockdown to fight the spread of coronavirus, crowds started converging on shops in South Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park.

In his speech, Modi told Indians several times that they would have to stay at home for the next three weeks. But he spoke about essential items for households only once and never made it clear whether people would be permitted out of the house to buy food during the lockdown.

The crowd at the South Delhi market was only one example of a phenomenon that was taking place across the country. There was chaos outside shops, with little regard for social distancing advisories. People grabbed items from the shelves indiscriminately to stock up for the three-week confinement. Modi took to Twitter after his speech to ask Indians not to panic, but that had little effect.

On Wednesday, Day One of the 21-day lockdown, reports of supply-chain bottlenecks flooded social media. Compounding the problem was the inability of the police in many parts of the country to differentiate between essential and non-essential goods and services. Delivery executives were beaten up, vehicles were stopped and allegations of the police harassing vendors were reported from several places.

Panic depletes stock

Outside a pharmacy in South Delhi on Tuesday evening, 68-year-old Raghudas Bannerjee queued up to buy diabetes medicines. Twenty minutes later when his turn came, he was disappointed that the medicine he needed had run out.

“My wife and I are diabetic,” he said. “We have to take the same tablet and have only two strips left. Now I have to queue up before a different pharmacy, which will also run out of it by the time my turn comes up there.” Asked why he decided to venture out himself and not send someone younger, Bannerjee said his son and daughter-in-law work in Pune and could not make it to Delhi before the travel restrictions came into force.

The scene at grocery shops in the market was even more chaotic, with people trying to buy whatever they could. Similar reports emerged from cities across the country.

Transport curbs

The restrictions put in place for the nation-wide lockdown include tight curbs on travel and transport. The Centre has said transportation will be restricted only to the supply of essential goods, while travel is allowed only for people engaged in essential services.

Though these were announced for the entire country on Tuesday, some states had put restrictions in place even earlier. In Delhi, for example, the police made it clear on Monday that vehicles would need curfew passes to move. Several states had also closed their borders, crimping the movement of essential supplies.

This hit supply chains. The Economic Times reported that on Wednesday that pharmaceutical
workers were finding it hard to reach their factories, consignments required for drug packaging were not allowed to pass by police and the supply of coal to power the factories was impacted.

Sandeep Nangia, head of Delhi’s Chemists and Drugists Association, said in a video message on social media that the police were not listening to suppliers and that vehicles were being stopped. He asked senior police officers to make sure the rank and file understood that essential supplies were to be allowed through. Otherwise, he warned, shortages would follow.

In South Delhi, pharmacies said they did receive supplies on Wednesday but were unsure of what the next few days would be like. “We got supply today because the distributors had stock,” one pharmacy owner said. “But if the the stocks do not reach the distributor, how will we get it?”

Groceries and delivery

The transport restrictions hurt e-commerce firms.

An executive with a large e-commerce firm said reports of the police stopping supplies have flooded his offices. “It seems the lower-level officers have simply not been told what essential supplies are,” he said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media. “Our senior executives had to call up senior police officers in several cities.”

There were several reports of delivery executives and others being beaten up by the police in many parts of India.

Till Wednesday afternoon, the executive said the company’s app did not have any delivery slots for booking orders. “With videos of police manhandling delivery executives, there is lot of fear among them,” he said.

The News Minute reported that Big Basket, one of the biggest digital grocery firms, had to temporarily stopped delivery due to the violence faced by delivery executives.

The Greater Chennai Corporation tweeted on Wednesday morning that all e-commerce companies are allowed to home deliver essentials. However, the tweet was later taken down.

Delhi Police Public Relations Officer told ANI that an meeting was held with e-commerce executives on Wednesday. Curfew passes have been issued and the Delhi Police will help the executives supply, he added.

At grocery shops in South Delhi, the fear was one of a labour crunch. A grocery shop owner said most workers in Delhi were from other North Indian states. “Most of them have gone back home,” he said. “The wholesalers have made it clear we have to take delivery if we want stock.”

He added that shop workers were also worried about crowding. “We are also humans,” he said. :The virus won’t keep away from us just because we sell groceries.”

Several residents of South Delhi said their vegetable vendors did not come in on Wednesday. “We have stocked up,” said a resident of Chittaranjan Park. “But it will be dangerous for every one if the police stops them as there will be more crowding in the markets.”

LPG and water

Packaged drinking water was among the first items to disappear. A resident of Chennai’s Nungambakam area said her supplier had warned her a week ago that the situation would get difficult. “Apparently, these factories are located outside the city so getting the cans was increasingly difficult for him,” she said. The supplier anticipated the crunch and asked her to stock up. “I took ten bubble top cans on Saturday,” she said. “But when I called him today, he said he had run out of stock and asked me to wait for two days.”

In Delhi, grocery shops said packaged water was the item that buyers were stocking up the most. “We refused to give more than one can to each person last night,” one shopkeeper said. “Even then, there is nothing left now.” However, the distributor had promised supplies by Thursday morning.

A Bengaluru resident said her requests to service her RO machine to filter water went unheeded due to the restrictions. When she tried to get bubble top cans, the shops said they had run out of stock. “I have borrowed from a neighbour for now,” the resident added.

Another essential commodity facing trouble is cooking gas. On Wednesday, Hindustan Petroleum asked customers not to panic and said LPG dealerships across the country are working to deliver cooking gas.

However, reports of a crunch of delivery executives for doorstep supply cropped up almost a week ago in cities like Mumbai. Many customers had to pick up LPG cylinders from the agencies themselves.

Residents of Kolkata taking delivery of LPG cylinders. Photo: Shoaib Daniyal

A resident of Kolkata said when she called up the agency to book a refill, she was told that the agency did not have executives to make the delivery. “They said we could go an pick it up from the agency,” the resident said.