Through last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has inspected 3,938 chemists across Maharashtra and found that 167 were selling masks at rates higher than the mandate set by the state government. The FDA has written to district collectors to take action against the chemists. In the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, action against 39 chemists has been initiated after they were found selling masks at inflated rates.
On October 20, the Maharashtra government issued a notification capping prices of masks in a series of interventions to reduce profiteering during the Covid-19 pandemic. As per the new rates, an N-95 mask would range between Rs 19 and Rs 45 depending on its kind, while a 3-ply would cost Rs 4 and a 2-ply Rs 3. The new rates, which brought down cost by 40-60 per cent, were immediately applicable in the market. Until then, an N-95 mask cost Rs 150-600 while a 3-ply mask between Rs 20 to Rs 40.
The notification has led to an uproar by manufacturers and chemists. While FDA, following commissioner Abhimanyu Kale’s directions, has begun inspection to ensure masks are sold as per latest government notification, chemists have complained of huge losses in last fortnight following the price capping regulation. Several chemists who had old stock of masks that they bought at high rates were forced to sell them at lower rates. The retailers association last week reached out to the state government to resolve this issue.
Hukumraj Gupta, owner of Abhijeet chemist in Dharavi, Mumbai, bought N-95 masks at Rs 50-70 per piece, but now has to sell them in the range of Rs 19-45 as per new rates. “Government has good intentions behind price capping. It was important to curb profiteering by manufacturers but in process chemists have suffered,” Gupta said.
Anil Navander, from the Maharashtra State Chemists and Druggists Association, said when the notification was released chemists had stock for 15-20 days that they purchased at higher rates from wholesalers and manufacturers but were forced to sell as per new rates. “We should have been allowed to clear the old stock. Neither manufacturers were willing to replace it nor were we permitted to sell it at rates above the capped prices,” Navander said. The association wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray last week drawing their attention towards branded companies that sell masks at exorbitant rates. “The government is not capping prices of those masks,” Navander said.
Chemists have also complained that direct supply of certain kinds of masks has been stopped by manufacturers in the market. “Venus has stopped supplying V4400 N-95 masks to chemists since the price capping notification. That mask is capped at Rs 28. Doctors preferred this mask over other N-95 masks but only the government is getting this stock not private chemists,” said Jagannath Shinde, president of All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD). Shinde added that the manufacturer found the new rates loss-making and has limited production. But Mahesh Kudav, director of Venus Safety and Health Pvt Ltd, said they have not stopped supply but only curtailed direct supply of masks to chemists. “We are selling directly to hospitals and nursing homes to cut risk of inflated sales by distributors,” Kudav said.
Manish Gupta, who owns Parmanand and Sons chemist in Nagpur, said the demand for masks has also gone down with decline in Covid-19 cases leaving them with dead stock. People are switching to washable cotton masks. “The mask that we are selling now is from old stock that we bought at high rates. I am suffering a loss of Rs 50 per piece on an average,” Gupta said.
Chemists have also complained that while the FDA is inspecting their establishments, there is no check on hawkers selling masks at unregulated prices. FDA officials said hawkers do not come under their jurisdiction. J B Mantri, joint director in FDA, said they are only inspecting registered chemist establishments for compliance of latest government notification. “The issue of incurring loss in sale of stock has to be discussed between government and chemists. We have been asked to take action against those who sell masks beyond capped rates. Both chemists and manufacturers have enjoyed huge profit margins in the last few months by selling masks at high rates,” he said.
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