Finally, the government has invoked the Essential Commodities Act and the Disaster Management Act to prevent hoarding, black marketing and sale of sub-standard hand sanitizers, face masks and gloves, thereby bringing hopes of an end to callous exploitation of consumers by trade and industry in these anxiety ridden times of global Coronavirus pandemic.
One of the most important precautionary steps to prevent the spread of the virus is constant hand washing and where anti-microbial soap and clean water are not available, alcohol based, quality hand sanitizer is the only choice. Yet, for over two weeks now consumers have been in an unenviable position of having to buy sanitizers and masks of doubtful efficacy and protection or pay a king’s ransom for well known brands.
In fact soon after the government started publicizing the preventive measures against the virus, all the three well-known brands of hand sanitizers just disappeared from the market, leaving consumers with new brands of unknown quality. Absence of third party quality certification on most of these brands have also made them highly suspect, more so given the fact that many fake products have also come into the market. In fact in the last few days, drug control authorities in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir have raided units manufacturing sanitizers in the most unhygienic conditions!
Meanwhile some unscrupulous traders have been hoarding the known brands and selling them at ten times their original price! Many consumers told me that the original prices had been erased and new prices had been superimposed on them ! This is sheer daylight robbery and a clear violation of the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, but I did not see state legal metrology departments hauling up such people and sending out a clear signal that such price gouging would not be tolerated. Ironically, I also did not see any kind of condemnation of such behavior by the associations of trade and industry, which are so vocal when it comes to protecting their interests! I must also mention that even sanitizers of little known brands have revised MRPs !
The government, which has otherwise been so proactive in dealing with the crisis, should have anticipated how the markets will respond to increased consumer demand and taken adequate steps to protect consumer rights in the very beginning, saving consumers lot of hardship. It was a bit slow in responding to consumer cries for help, but now that it has done so and armed state governments too with sufficient powers to regulate the production, distribution, price and quality of these products, one hopes that enforcement agencies will act quickly and stringently and ensure the availability of quality hand sanitizers (and masks) at reasonable rates. Absence of this essential commodity can well undermine the good efforts of the government to contain the virus.
Under the Essential Commodities Act, the punishment for violation can go up to seven years of incarceration or fine or both and under the Prevention of Black marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act, a person found guilty will face a maximum of six months imprisonment. This Act also provides for preventive detention.
Lastly, I must say that so far, Covid-19 has largely been a problem of the rich and the upper middle class- mostly those who travelled abroad. But this may not remain so, particularly with highly irresponsible citizens escaping quarantine and travelling to different places, spreading the disease in the general community. Thus if the virus penetrates the poor populations, which cannot even afford to buy soap, containing the virus becomes extremely difficult. So the government should start distributing anti-microbial soaps in dispensers and hand sanitizers free of cost to those who do not have the capacity to buy them. Manufacturers too can contribute to this effort -after all, their sales and profit margins are sure to go up with the spread of the virus!
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