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Business News/ Industry / Retail/  How India plans to reinvent e-commerce with an Amazon killer
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How India plans to reinvent e-commerce with an Amazon killer


Country is investing in e-commerce model that is based on digital public goods rather than corporate monopolies.

E-commerce firms have been reducing amount of discounts over time, say analysts. Photo: iStockPremium
E-commerce firms have been reducing amount of discounts over time, say analysts. Photo: iStock

India wants to create a new sort of public utility: an Amazon killer.

Success—or even a decent attempt—would represent an existential threat to the expansion plans of U.S. Big Tech abroad. It could also be a model for other developing nations that want to leverage the potential of e-commerce, digital payments and other online services without handing the keys to a few big technology giants.

A little over a month ago, the Indian government’s Open Network for Digital Commerce, or ONDC, went live in Bengaluru, the country’s technology hub. ONDC is an interoperable network that aims to help small retailers replicate the reach of private e-commerce platforms—i.e., loosen the grip of and Walmart-backed Flipkart. It will enable the display of products and services from all participating e-commerce platforms in search results across all apps on the network.

All of this comes as India has been aggressively pursuing antitrust cases against large U.S. tech companies including Meta Platforms, Google and Amazon.

The jury is still very much out on how successful ONDC will be. But the network’s launch sends strong signals about how India, which boasts the world’s second-largest population of internet users, wants to cultivate its internet economy: It would prefer a competitive, decentralized model built atop digital public goods.

That is starkly different from the U.S. model centered on natural monopolies, often feeding off advertising revenue, or from China’s highly censored and protected model.

Morgan Stanley sees ONDC as, potentially, a significant threat to established brands and to platforms in sectors such as ride-hailing and food delivery. The bank says over 30 companies are in active discussions to align with ONDC, including Reliance Retail, Paytm and Google.

The pillar of this vision is India Stack, a set of software tools developed by government agencies and nonprofits, aiming to unlock the potential of secure identity verification, e-commerce, and payments for the population as a whole.

One example: over 90% of India’s population has now signed up for Aadhaar, the biometric identity-verification system that is a key component of India Stack, according to the Indian government. By 2019, around half had already linked their bank account to their ID, which can then be used to make digital payments through India Stack’s Unified Payments Interface, according to the International Monetary Fund.

That, the IMF notes, has in turn helped facilitate the rise of new companies such as Jio, the telco that has significantly expanded data access across India. Other India Stack elements include the Open Credit Enablement Network, which aims to codify a common set of credit standards for borrowers, lenders, and fintech intermediaries.

To be sure, a successful open architecture for e-commerce faces major challenges. People buy from platforms such as Amazon in part because the company invests in trying to ensure products are legitimate and will arrive in good shape and in a timely manner. When things go very wrong, customers have various forms of recourse including the courts. Building that sort of accountability and reliability into an open access, decentralized platform may prove quite difficult.

But success would add up to a major threat to the business model of dominant U.S.-backed digital commerce companies such as Amazon—particularly if elements of India Stack are then exported to other large developing nations wary of U.S. tech giants’ clout.

India Stack and ONDC bear close watching—both for tech investors and their critics in government and civil society at home and abroad.

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