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Govt. declares face masks, hand sanitizers as essential commodities

Essential Commodities Act

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In News:

  • Following reports of shortage and irrational pricing of hand sanitizers and masks, the government has notified an order under the Essential Commodities Act to declare masks (2 ply and 3 ply surgical masks, N95 masks) and hand sanitizers as essential commodities up to June 30, 2020.

Essential Commodities Act

News Summary:

  • The coronavirus pandemic has triggered panic buying of masks and hand sanitizers at many places around the world, including in India.
  • The government has notified an order under the Essential Commodities Act to declare masks (2 ply and 3 ply surgical masks, N95 masks) and hand sanitizers as essential commodities up to June 30, 2020.
  • The government’s order has come in the wake of reports of a shortage of these commodities and a sudden and sharp spike in their prices, and the alleged hoarding of stocks by manufacturers.
  • The decision was taken to smoothen the sale and availability of these items and carry out operations against orders speculators etc. and those involved in over pricing, black-marketing etc.
  • In the present situation, the government can intervene to regulate the supply and pricing of masks and hand sanitizers, and also notify their stock-holding limits.
  • The move paves way for action against offenders under the EC Act as well as Prevention of Black-marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act, 1980 (PBMMSEC Act).
  • The ministry also asked states to publicize helplines for registering complaints by consumers.

Purpose of designating these commodities as “essential”:

  • The purpose of designating any commodity as “essential” is to prevent profiteering at a time of extraordinary demand.
  • Designation of masks and hand sanitizers as “essential commodities” does not mean that the government considers them to be ‘essential’, in the literal sense, in the fight against COVID-19.
  • The use of masks is helpful only if anyone has symptoms himself, or if caring for someone who has symptoms.
  • The infection is spreading mostly through infected surfaces and masks, especially the cheap surgical ones, can’t actually block the virus out.
  • Similarly, washing hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and (preferably warm) water is more effective than hand sanitizers.
  • The hand sanitizer should be alcohol-based, with at least 60% alcohol content. So-called “herbal” hand sanitizers are not useful.

Power of the Government in case of Non-compliance:

  • Violators are termed as illegal hoarders or black-marketeers who can be prosecuted.
  • The move paves way for action against offenders under the EC Act as well as Prevention of Black-marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act, 1980 (PBMMSEC Act).

Punishments:

  • Under the EC Act, an offender may be punished with an imprisonment upto 7 years or fine or both.
  • Under the PBMMSEC Act, an offender can be detained for maximum of 6 months.
  • Agencies of state governments and Union Territory administrations are empowered to conduct raids to catch violators.
  • The government can confiscate excess stock hoarded by retailers/traders/manufacturers, and either auction it or sell it through fair-price shops.

Significance of the move:

  • The decision would empower the Government and States/UTs to regulate production, quality, distribution of the two products.
  • It will enhance the availability of both the items to the general people at reasonable prices or under MRP.

About: The Essential Commodities Act

  • The Essential Commodities Act was enacted in 1955 to essentially protect consumers from unreasonable and exploitative increases in prices of commodities in times of shortage.
  • It provides for the control of the production, supply and distribution trade and commerce, in certain commodities in the interest of the general public.
  • The Act defines an “essential commodity” as simply “a commodity specified in the Schedule”.
  • The Act empowers the central government to add new commodities to the list of Essential Commodities as and when the need arises, and to remove them from the list once the crisis is over or the situation improves.
  • Under the Act, the government can also fix the maximum retail price (MRP) of any packaged product that it declares an “essential commodity”.
  • It has been amended several times over the years, and made more stringent.
  • Over the years, a long list of items have been designated as essential commodities, including various drugs, fertilizers, cereals, pulses, sugar, edible oils, petroleum and petroleum products, and certain crops.

Implementation of the act:

  • States and UTs act on the notification issued by the Centre, and implement the regulations.
  • Anybody trading or dealing in the essential commodity, including wholesalers, retailers, manufacturers, and importers, is barred from stocking it beyond the specified quantity.

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