India eases lockdown restrictions, more shops allowed to operate
By Atul Ranjan
NEW DELHI, NNA – Shops in non-hotspot areas across India started to reopen their shutters on Saturday after the government cautiously eased severe restrictions amid an ongoing nationwide lockdown as the doubling time of confirmed cases of coronavirus infection has slowed down.
The government gave the green light to all shops, except those operating in shopping malls or market complexes even as the 40-day long extended lockdown is not due to end until on May 3.
Only shops offering essential services such as groceries have been allowed to operate during the shutdown. Now, other businesses can operate but only at half the staff strength and workers must wear masks and adhere to social distancing norms.
Online retailers will continue to sell only essential items such as groceries, according to the government.
However, the leader of the world’s second-most populous country was quick to remind people to stay at home and not to abandon rules on social distancing as the coast is not clear yet.
In a radio address on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Indians not to assume that the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus has been brought fully under control.
Although the government reported the doubling rate of infection has slowed, the battle is far from over, he reiterated.
The health ministry on Sunday evening reported two deaths and 421 confirmed cases for the day, taking the number of fatalities to 826 and total cases to 26,917.
While welcoming the government’s decision to allow shops to reopen, players in the retail industry and trade associations have called for greater clarity on the reopening rules.
Kumar Rajagopalan, CEO of the Retailers Association of India (RAI), said explanation on the government's definition of “market complexes” is necessary as there is confusion over the term.
“We feel the current circular is open to interpretation and needs more clarity for easier implementation. Terms like market complexes are not easily understood,” Rajagopalan told NNA in an email.
According to Praveen Khandelwal, the national secretary general of the Confederation of All India Traders, which represents 60 million merchants across the country, many shop owners are reluctant to resume operations partly for this reason.
Meanwhile, some malls in various Indian cities are offering both partial and full rental waivers to businesses hit by the ongoing lockdown. They are also in the process of renegotiating rentals for the remaining months of this year as retailers are expecting sharp decline in earnings, according to a recent statement by brokerage firm Motilal Oswal Financial Services Ltd.
The firm said, “We may witness increased vacancies across malls, with many retailers turning unviable, and a sharp slowdown in new store openings.”
“Most retail chains are already in discussions with mall owners for a possible exemption or rebate in rentals of 10 to 15 percent in 2020,” it added.
Rajagopalan of the RAI felt that malls in the country should also be allowed to reopen as "they are professionally run and would be able to control the environment for safety and social distancing.”
Retailers have expressed concern that a weak recovery in a grim economic situation and employment uncertainty are likely to hurt consumer spending.
According to RAI’s recent survey, retailers believe that the economic impact from the pandemic might last at least nine to 12 months with a sharp plunge in takings over the next six months compared to the same period last year.
Non-food retailers are expected to make only 40 percent of what they earned last year. Food retailers are likely to see their last year's performance drop to 56 percent, according to the survey findings.
The association said the Indian retail industry has more than 15 million traditional and modern players, employing 40 to 50 million people. It contributes 10 percent to India’s gross domestic poduct.