New Delhi: While the Central government has come up with advisories on exemptions from curbs being implemented during the nationwide shutdown until mid-April, consumer companies and retailers are facing hurdles, with local authorities in some states frequently changing rules, company executives said.

For example, Lucknow city officials ordered wholesalers to sell essential goods to the authorities and not directly to the kiranas, which form the bedrock of retailing in India. Cash-and-carry companies said the city has fixed prices for essential goods that are below their costs.

On the other hand, the authorities in Ghaziabad in the same state allow wholesalers to sell directly to the kiranas.

Challenges for Offline Retailers

In Gautam Buddh Nagar, where Noida is located, the prices of flour, rice, staples and salt are fixed and action would be taken against those selling these commodities at higher prices.

“New guidelines from the states are creating some confusion. While notifications and advisories from the Centre are very clear, the interpretation is different in each state,” said Arvind Mediratta, MD of Metro Cash & Carry India, which operates 27 stores in states including Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Punjab. “In many cases, it’s even different across cities in the same state. So this gap between the central guidelines and citywise implementation is becoming a big challenge.”

“There is this discretionary power in the hands of the district magistrates and they behave like the new satraps and decide whatever they want to do,” said the chief executive officer of a retail company. These officials draw immense discretionary power under the National Disaster Management Act, which the Centre invoked to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the executive said.

The home ministry issued guidelines on Sunday allowing transportation of all goods – regardless of whether they’re considered essential – distribution, supply and packaging of milk, and transportation of products such as handwashes, soaps, disinfectants and surface cleansers without restrictions. Addressed to the chief secretaries of all states, the guidelines direct all district authorities and field agencies to avoid any ambiguity at the ground level.

A day earlier, the commissioner of Amdavad Municipal Corporation ordered three dozen supermarket and hypermarkets operated by Reliance Retail, Big Bazaar, DMart and Osia Hypermart to close “till further orders.”

“Home deliveries are permitted. The decision will be reviewed after they improve home delivery mechanisms,” municipal commissioner Vijay Nehra tweeted on Saturday. People are “advised not to visit the stores,” he said.

“We are offline retailers and if specialised e-commerce companies are not able to make deliveries these days, how can we?” said Dhirendra Chopra, chairman of Osia Hypermart, which operates 18 outlets Gujarat, of which seven in Ahmedabad are shut, as per the latest order.

Kumar Rajagopalan, CEO of the Retailers Association of India, echoed the sentiments and said physical retailers don’t have the wherewithal for home deliveries.

“It is not even economically viable for the physical retailers as such last-mile delivery is not in their capabilities,” he said.

Angelo George, CEO of Bisleri, said he appreciates the challenges that the authorities face in enforcing the 21-day countrywide lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“However, despite state government notifications, an official in one part of the state wouldn’t issue permissions, while essential items move freely in rest of the state,” he said. “Or even at city level, one particular official wouldn’t issue approvals for his part of the city despite clear government guidelines. So, a lot of our time had to be invested in sorting out these administrative hassles.”

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