Illustration by Suneesh Kalarickal.
Nasscom, the lobbying group for India’s software and services companies, has unwittingly pointed to a sea change that has taken place as a result of the pandemic in the way Indians live.
In response to the government allowing e-commerce companies to sell only essential goods during the current lockdowns to tackle the second wave of COVID-19 infections, it has requested that the list of what is essential be expanded so that firms can work effectively from home.
One of the items it has mentioned that can lend itself to a lot of social media humour is chairs. Now is that western seating accessory essential in a country where sitting cross-legged on the floor is a part of the national ethos? You surely will not starve if you cannot sit on a chair but how many software engineers and BPM operatives can work from home seated on the floor?
Where leaders of online businesses have perhaps unwittingly touched on the sea change that has taken place in the way Indians have learnt to survive during the pandemic is to call for the inclusion of not just laptops but also mobile phones in the list of essentials.
During the first lockdown and thereafter, a key change that has taken place in the way in which families – among both the rich and the poor – have survived is by children not going to school but attending online classes from home. A key enabler in this – if a family does not have a laptop with a webcam – is the smartphone.
Once the privileged possession of the better off, the smartphone has replaced the humble feature phone as an essential item in every household that at least has a roof over its head so that children can access online lessons. The media has carried heartrending stories of the odd child committing suicide because the family simply did not have the money to repair the only smartphone that it had.
At a lighter level was the story of a youngster who would climb onto a nearby tree to attend classes because that was the only place where he could get proper signals. From this it is easy to imagine how a modern-day rendition of Mowgli in Jungle Book would feature the child still swinging from tree to tree but cellphone in hand.
Another massive change that has taken place in the lifestyle of not just the middle class but even a couple of levels below, is the way in which online shopping has become an integral part of day-to-day living. In this connection an e-commerce leader has made the entire valid point that if you don’t allow more of online commerce under essentials, then people will have to go out to get what they must have which will not be safe.
Here we can speculate on how a cake of soap should be treated. It is an essential item for 99 per cent of Indians, but what about a fancy brand which costs a bomb? So do we start defining what is essential not just item wise but also in terms of price?
Towards the latter part of the last century there was a heated debate as to whether colour TV was an essential possession of every household and hence foreign exchange needed to be allocated to import colour picture tubes for TV sets. Today the TV set is being threatened with obsolescence by platforms that operate over the top through which you can see any number of shows.
The whole point is that regulation has to keep pace with social practice which innovatively adjusts to the changing landscape with the help of innovative technology. Over enthusiastic or tough regulators will have egg on their face if they don’t watch out.
What is more, sometimes there is no regulatory solution to a real life contradiction. A nationwide association of kirana stores has told the government that if you allow e-commerce to sell non-essential stuff, then why will you not allow our stores to sell such stuff too. Indeed why not? But then what happens to regulation which seeks to restrict people from going out and mixing with others which is not safe?
Since trying to make fine distinctions is a quagmire that regulators need to avoid, they should perhaps stick to rough broad measures like lockdowns and curfews. But didn’t we start off on the essential/non-essential journey because rough broad tools deprive a whole lot of poor people of their incomes which makes such tools do more harm than good?