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THE WEEK|September 19, 2021
The government wants a UPI-like model for e-commerce, which might change the sector as we know it
K. SUNIL THOMAS

THE MOOD WAS light in Lutyens Delhi. A cantankerous Parliament session had just ended and the ‘Amrit Mahotsav’ festivities for the 75th year of independence were being launched. Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, however, was all business as he chaired an innocuous meeting at his office, a virtual gathering of about a dozen people to discuss a project the government had initiated. Goyal did most of the talking, laying down the roadmap for what, in true Sarkari style, had its own new-fangled abbreviation— ONDC, or Open Network for Digital Commerce.

Later that night, as the government issued a statement outlining the rough contours of the project and its aim, alarm bells started ringing. From the glitzy glass-and-steel towers of Bengaluru all the way down to the US, the uneasy whispers had just one question. Is this aimed at finishing off Amazon and Flipkart in India?

The official government note was circumspect. “ONDC is a globally first-of-its-kind initiative that aims to democratize digital commerce, moving it from a platform-centric model to an open network,” it said. “[It] will enable buyers and sellers to be digitally visible and transact through an open network. No matter what platform or application they use.”

Goyal was blunter. It will end the monopolistic practices in digital commerce in India, he declared. “ONDC will not just be limited to products but also to services,” he added.

In one stroke, ONDC went from being just another government initiative to perhaps the most potent weapon the ruling dispensation has yet unleashed on India’s e-commerce duopoly. By Goyal’s definition of “not just limited to products”, it instantly made its target not just Amazon and Flipkart, but virtually every online seller in the country—anyone from a ticket booking site to a food delivery aggregator.

According to Pallab Saha, general manager (India) & chief architect at The Open Group, a Silicon Valley-based global consortium working towards open technology standards, “ONDC is aimed to completely rewrite and re-architect the digital commerce landscape in India. A revolution is imminent, and revolutions by definition are disruptive.”

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