Can e-commerce help address India's jobs crisis in a post-COVID era?
JustJobs Network, in partnership with the Centre for Policy Research, hosted a webinar to discuss E-Commerce & Jobs in a Post-COVID Era. The discussion was part of a series of events organised under the Women, Work, and the Gig Economy project supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada).
Ms. Sabina Dewan, President and Executive Director of the JustJobs Network and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, noted that "lockdowns and the social distancing norms in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic are tilting consumer preferences toward e-commerce. The ensuing expansion of e-commerce presents new opportunities for some businesses, but imposes costs for others. Availing the e-commerce opportunity entails acquiring technology, digital skills, information to access online markets, adequate infrastructure and it needs a conducive regulatory environment. These requirements can be cumbersome for small businesses."
Dewan continued, "Women-owned businesses tend to remain small with a majority -- 83 per cent -- operating without hired workers (Sixth Economic Census 2013-14) and 98 percent being micro-enterprises." There is evidence that e-commerce is enabling women entrepreneurs to leverage e-commerce to boost their home-based businesses, but for more women to leverage this opportunity, they too will need support. While the government has been keen to expand digitalization, grow MSMEs, and foster start-ups in India, there is a need to explore more gender-specific provisions in schemes supporting women-owned small and medium enterprises that will promote participation of women, help them get on digital platforms, and enable them to leverage the opportunities that e-commerce offers.
Elaborating on the opportunity for women, Dr. Aruna Sharma IAS, Former Secretary at Govt. of India, noted, "The metamorphosis between online and offline formats of retail provides an opportunity for increasing women's participation in the labour market. Women led Self-Help Groups are now going on e-commerce platforms to take their products beyond their neighborhood markets. E-commerce platforms have an important role to play in providing these women owned businesses with technical know-how, digital skills, and marketing and logistical support so that they have the possibility to experiment more with their products, get real-time feedback, and expand market access."
Speaking of the wider impact of e-commerce on small businesses and jobs, Ms. Nirupama Soundararajan, Head of Research and CEO at Pahle India Foundation, highlighted, "We can't discount the fact that e-commerce will lead to some job loss, but the extent and net impact is still to be seen. We need to understand that western models of e-commerce do not necessarily replicate in the Indian context." So we cannot rely on these models to tell us what the impact on the Indian economy will be. "The Indian consumer will buy from different formats of retail, whether it is neighborhood kirana stores or online platforms, and this trend provides an opportunity to pioneer collaborative models in which both online and offline can work together to create jobs."
This calls for a regulatory framework that is not only conducive to fostering the growth of small businesses, but also to the expansion of e-commerce in particular. Dr. Avik Sarkar, Visiting Associate Professor of Data, Technology and Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, acknowledged, "The regulatory landscape needs to be simplified, because its complexity is making it difficult to do business [in India] deterring investment."
Dr. Sarkar also highlighted that as technology, and e-commerce advance and their impact unfolds, "we need high quality academic research on this topic to inform policy alternatives."