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Explained: What is an ‘essential commodity’? Why has govt declared masks, hand sanitisers ‘essential’ commodities?

It is a penal provision to ensure there is no profiteering from a commodity that is temporarily in extraordinary demand. It does not mean that masks and sanitisers are ‘essential’ to combat coronavirus.

Written by Varinder Bhatia , Edited by Explained Desk | Chandigarh | Updated: March 14, 2020 3:20:53 pm
Explained: What is an ‘essential commodity’? Why has the govt declared masks and hand sanitisers ‘essential’ commodities? The central government on Friday (March 13) declared hand sanitisers and masks “essential commodities” until the end of June.

Following reports of shortage and irrational pricing of hand sanitisers and masks, the central government on Friday (March 13) declared these items “essential commodities” until the end of June.

In a statement, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution said: “In view the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and concern of the logistics for COVID-19 management particularly during last couple of weeks and that masks (2 ply & 3 ply surgical masks, N95 masks) and hand sanitizers have been noted to be either not available with most of the vendors in the market or are available with great difficulty at exorbitant prices, Government has notified an Order under the Essential Commodities Act to declare these items as Essential Commodities up to 30th June, 2020 by amending the Schedule of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.”

What does the government’s declaration mean?

The Essential Commodities Act provides, “in the interest of the general public, for the control of the production, supply and distribution of, and trade and commerce, in certain commodities”.

The law, which was passed in 1955 to essentially protect consumers from unreasonable and exploitative increases in prices of commodities in times of shortage, has been amended several times over the years, and made more stringent.

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The coronavirus pandemic has triggered panic buying of masks and hand sanitisers at many places around the world, including in India.

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.

Under the Act, the government can also fix the maximum retail price (MRP) of any packaged product that it declares an “essential commodity”.

But does the designation also mean that masks and hand sanitisers are ‘essential’ to combat the novel coronavirus?

No. It is important to note that the designation of masks and hand sanitisers as “essential commodities” does not mean that the government considers them to be ‘essential’, in the literal sense, in the fight against COVID-19.

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Doctors and health experts have underlined that the use of masks is helpful only if you have symptoms yourself, or if you are 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 your hands thoroughly — for at least 20 seconds — with soap and (preferably warm) water is more effective than hand sanitisers. If you do use a hand sanitiser, ensure that is alcohol-based, with at least 60% alcohol content. So-called “herbal” hand sanitisers are not useful.

What kind of items or products are generally classified as essential commodities?

The government has sweeping powers in this regard. 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.

Over the years, a long list of items have been designated as essential commodities, including various drugs, fertilisers, cereals, pulses, sugar, edible oils, petroleum and petroleum products, and certain crops.

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In the present situation, the government can intervene to regulate the supply and pricing of masks and hand sanitisers, and also notify their stock-holding limits.

How do states and Union Territories implement these orders?

They 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.

What if the retailers/traders/manufacturers do not comply?

The purpose of designating any commodity as “essential” is to prevent profiteering at a time of extraordinary demand.

Violators are, therefore, termed as illegal hoarders or black-marketeers who can be prosecuted. Besides penalties, the violation may lead to imprisonment for a maximum period of seven years.

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.

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