The Department of Consumer Affairs, under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, has taken off face masks and hand sanitisers from the Essential Commodities Act 1955. On July 6, the department issued a notification, backdated to July 1, 2020, communicating that there are no adverse reports from the States and Union Territories, with respect to price or availability of face masks and hand sanitisers. Hence, the department has decided not to continue these items as essential commodities under the essential commodities Act 1955 beyond June 30, 2020.
This move hasn’t gone done well with public health activists who have raised concerns and feel that it is an ‘absurd move by the department’.
Prof Bejon Misra, Founder Director, Patients Safety and Access Initiative said, “The consumers are terribly upset with the notification of withdrawal of masks and hand sanitisers from the purview of essential commodities.”
He continued, “Even today, the quality of these products are substandard and no laws are mandating the standard and quality of these products. This has resulted in profiteering as well, creating artificial short supply and manufacturing of substandard products in the country.”
He urged, “This notification needs to be immediately brought back within the purview of Essential Commodities Act to ensure quality and availability.”
Similarly, Dr Ratna Devi, Chair of Board of Directors, International Alliance of Patients’ Organisations, expressed, “The notification for removal of facemasks and hand sanitisers from essential items may be a short-sighted decision given the complete lack of regulation in the quality and safety of the various masks and sanitisers available in the market. A blanket decision will only flood the market with even more inferior material priced exorbitantly, putting the helpless consumer at risk.”
But, regulators try to explain the rationale behind the government’s move.
Narendra Ahooja, State Drug Controller, Haryana, said, “The government has taken all the measures to ensure supply and affordability of these products in the market. The only problem we see as a regulator with the withdrawal of hand sanitisers and masks from the Essential Commodities Act is that the order of issued notification should have been with a prospective date instead of a backdated one. It will be a difficult task for us to rework on the initiated work carried between July 1-6, 2020.”
Explaining the initiated move, Ahooja commented, “The pragmatic change of withdrawing these products from the Essential Commodities Act, could be because of surplus productions in the market. Moreover, the prices of these products are also lower than the fixed prices. For instance, the prices of 2-ply and 3-ply masks were fixed at Rs 8 and Rs 10. Now, they are available at Rs 2-3 and Rs 5-7 respectively. Similarly, the prices of hand sanitisers are also below the capped price by the authority. Since supply is meeting the demand, prices of these products have come down.”
JB Mantri, Joint Commissioner, State Controller Maharashtra and State Drug Controlling authority stated, “We do not see any shortage of these products in the market, and the government must have done the analysis before announcing their withdrawal from the Essential Commodities Act.” He further informed, “In Maharashtra, we have been given manufacturing license to 110 distilleries to produce hand sanitisers and there is surplus production of both, hand sanitisers as well as face masks in the State. We could see that there is a lot of competition in the market, which has also resulted in the availability of these products at low prices.”
An evolving scenario…
In March 2020, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution had regulated the prices of face masks and hand sanitisers looking at their role to prevent coronavirus infections in the country. It had also passed an order informing that these products should be considered and treated as essential commodities for a period up to June 30, 2020.
In May 2020, the government restricted the exports of hand sanitisers to ensure their availability in the country.
In June 2020, export restrictions on hand sanitisers were lifted. However, the export of alcohol-based hand sanitisers in containers with dispenser pumps was prohibited.
Last month, another notification informed that as demand for hand sanitisers may increase after lockdown conditions are relaxed, the validity of the notification, with respect to hand sanitisers, may be extended till December 31, 2020.
Thus, since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, several measures have been implemented by the government with regards to face masks and hand sanitisers. The latest is the decision to take them off the essential commodities list.