More than a billion people are under a lockdown in India aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19, which has claimed 27 lives so far. As soon as the restrictions were announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at 8 pm on March 24, markets across urban India were flooded by panicked buyers stocking up on essentials. In his televised address, Modi had failed to effectively communicate whether Indians would be able to access food and other essentials during the 21-day lockdown or how they could do so.

Over the next two days, reports and videos emerged of policemen across the country assaulting vegetable vendors and people who had ventured out to buy groceries. On the morning of March 25, several e-commerce companies suspended their services after their delivery personnel were beaten by the police.

By that night, though, most of these companies said they had resumed their services in a limited number of cities and were in talks with the police to issue curfew passes to their delivery personnel.

However, very few Indians actually shop for groceries online regularly. Online food and grocery retail accounts for just 0.2% of the overall retail market, research firm RedSeer Consulting told Mint. Most Indians prefer to step out to buy essentials from local grocery stores. As most urban Indians stay in their homes, volunteer groups in many cities are trying to help get essential commodities to those unable to access them online, the elderly and others who cannot venture out.

Till the doorstep

Even as anecdotal evidence suggests that more Indians are trying to buy essentials from e-commerce sites, the lockdown has hampered online food and grocery companies. A spokesperson for Swiggy, an online platform that arranges the delivery of cooked food, said that there had been a shortage of supplies because many restaurants and kitchens have closed.

“There has been a short-term impact in terms of softening in volumes which can be attributed to the shortage of supply due to temporary closure of many high-volume restaurants located in malls and disruptions on ground across certain states,” the spokesperson said.

Besides, the temporary suspension of services created a backlog for many platforms. A spokesperson at Grofers, an online grocery platform, said that the firm would focus on clearing the backlog before taking in new orders. “Currently, 90% of our warehouses are operational and we have deployed 50% of our delivery partners with all relevant permissions to carry out smooth and quick operations,” the spokesperson said.

But e-commerce companies are grappling with other challenges, said K Ganesh, the co-promoter of online delivery firms BigBasket. Freshmenu and Portea Medical. “It takes time to establish that online food delivery is an essential service,” he said on Friday. “In Mumbai, our kitchens are still not operational...we have to explain that there is no seating and people are not coming. They [police] just cite Section 144 [restricting the gathering of four or more people] and want to shut it down otherwise they will fine Rs 25,000. That is crazy. I cannot pay Rs 25,000 per kitchen.”

The second was the tattered supply chain, as most of the produce is transported across state lines. “Without any cross border movement how would we solve this problem and stock our warehouses?” Ganesh asked.

The third challenge was getting workers and employees to get to the kitchens and warehouses, and delivery personnel to step out to work. “The scale of the problem is huge,” Ganesh said. He said that the system of daily curfew passes being issued by the authorities in many places “was not going to work” and suggested a longer-term solution, such as the FastTag

But Ganesh added that states like Karnataka had begun to move fast to plug the holes.

‘No contact delivery’

Similarly, a Zomato spokesperson said that Delhi-NCR, Maharashtra and Karnataka state governments had issued notifications to local authorities to let e-commerce operate. “We are yet to see a 100% impact in most states,” the spokesperson said.

Most of these companies have also introduced “no contact delivery” where the delivery staff would drop off the package at the doorstep and not come in physical contact with the customer.

A spokesperson at Grofers online grocery delivery service stated that the firm’s warehouses and storage facilities were being disinfected and sanitised every day and that its warehouse staff were being screened to take their temperatures every day.

Citizens step out

However, many Indians are not technologically savvy enough to order groceries online. Others cannot venture out of their homes to shop for essentials, especially senior citizens who are more vulnerable to the disease or those who have been home-quarantined by state authorities,.

To cater to their needs, voluntary groups in various cities have stepped up to to deliver groceries and medicines.

Across Mumbai, for instance, around 1,500 volunteers who own vehicles have stepped in over the past week to deliver groceries and medical supplies to senior citizens who live alone and people who are home-quarantined, said Shishir Joshi of the Project Mumbai non-profit organisation.

Delivery men in Kolkata prepare to set out during the lockdown on March 27. Credit; PTI

To make things smoother, Joshi said his organisation tied up with retailers to prepare packages valued at Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 containing essential supplies like pulses, rice, oil, vegetables and sanitary products. Once a payment is made online, a volunteer steps out to deliver the package to the customer’s doorstep without having any physical contact with the person.

The volunteers are mostly students and young professionals. “Most of these volunteers are delivering within their neighbourhoods so some of the locations are within walking distance for them,” Joshi said. “We have completely localised our resources and we have not received any complaint so far.”

In addition to helping vulnerable citizens, Joshi said that Project Mumbai had been asked by the Maharashtra government to provide lunch and dinner for 50 staffers, including security guards, at the state’s coronavirus control room in Nariman Point. They are also delivering meals to 350 doctors at government-run JJ Hospital and to 50 doctors at Cama and Albless Hospital.

To provide the cooked meals, Joshi said the organisation has tied up with two community kitchens and restaurateurs who had shut their dining halls but kept their kitchens functional.

So far, the volunteers did not need to seek permission or get curfew passes to move around to deliver groceries, Joshi said. “The government is stressed and the police also know the purpose for which we are stepping out if they see us carrying our bags and identity cards,” he said.

Delivering food at Mantralay in Mumbai. (Photo: Shishir Joshi)

In Bangalore too citizens have been volunteering to deliver groceries. Sai Keshav, a 22-year-old professional, has been running a campaign through his Instagram account to coordinate with 20 other volunteers. So far, the group has been getting more than five delivery requests in a day, he said.

“I was stopped by a cop once,” Keshav said. “But I explained to him what I was doing and he let me go after that.”

However, stepping out for deliveries was not as simple for all volunteer groups in the country.

Inderpreet Singh, founder of Grey Shades, which works with senior citizens in Chandigarh and the neighbouring cities of Mohali in Punjab and Panchkula in Haryana said that the authorities in Chandigarh had refused his volunteers permission by the authorities to venture out.

However, the Punjab government has issued the group 12 curfew passes to continue their work in Mohali and Singh said that over 250 volunteers continued to work in Panchkula where passes were not needed.

“We get more than a 100 calls from senior citizens in each city everyday,” Singh said.