Policy cannot presume to divide business and life into essential and unessential

By Mint SnapView
When it comes to business, the bulk of sales falls in the non-essential category. If e-commerce companies are able to deliver a good or service at doorsteps, why must bureaucrats seek to curb it?  (Photo: iStock) 

With the Omicron wave rising, the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), housed in Udyog Bhawan in the national capital, has revived its monitoring and control room for ensuring the smooth delivery of “essential" goods and services. It will, as it did during the second wave, facilitate unhindered movement of essentials throughout the country. This is way better than the chaos last summer, when governments, in states and in the centre, issued hundreds of rules and notification--many of which were contradictory, with field-level implementing authorities struggling to interpret them leading to a slowdown in movement of goods--governing what is essential and what it isn’t. But it is far from ideal.

Governments are not good at outguessing markets. Printer ink cartridges, paper and stationary may seem unessential to officials but could be key to someone’s livelihood. Bureaucrats may decide elective surgeries or haircuts are best postponed, but such services could make a difference to people’s levels of comfort and wellbeing.

Governments overstep the limits of their capacity and competence when they seek to control lives by presuming bureaucrats can know what is essential for living life and doing business. One of the lessons of the pandemic, especially the red-tapism and delays seen in vaccinating sizable populations globally, is that the incompetence of bureaucrats and politicians can blunt even the ingenuity of science. What’s non-essential really? Daily wages? Comforting loved ones coping alone with bereavement?

Essential-unessential distinctions are dubious and bureaucrats seeking to define these categories only betray a dangerously narrow understanding of what it takes to sustain life and livelihoods. By dividing existence into essential and non-essential, governments open up themselves to scrutiny for motives. For it is natural that citizens will ask why are mass gatherings for election rallies or religious celebrations acceptable when classroom learning in schools and colleges isn’t.

When it comes to business, the bulk of sales falls in the non-essential category. If e-commerce companies are able to deliver a good or service at doorsteps, why must bureaucrats seek to curb it? Last year, offline, physical stores saw growing e-commerce as a threat that could dislodge them from the business. But the resistance from those quarters is likely to have dulled, with mom-and-pop stores tying up with the e-commerce giants, increasing their business, reducing the time and distance required to be covered for deliveries.

This time last year most of us were counting weeks to getting vaccinated and saying goodbye forever to the pandemic. A year later, even the double-vaccinated are precisely where they were then: trying to live with lost freedoms and uncertainty. When the policymaker counts the costs and benefits of his decisions, do they ask themselves what’s the value of an item to a person in grief or stress? In all times, but especially during the unsettling experience of an ensuing pandemic, we can do with less intrusive governments. 

Udyog Bhawan would do well to facilitate the movement of deliverable goods and services, without seeking to categorise them on the lines of essential and unessential.

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