On 13 March 2020, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution notified masks (2 ply & 3 ply surgical masks, N95 masks) & hand sanitizers as essential commodities under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 (Act) up to 30 June 2020.
Under the Act, if the Central Government deems fit, it may, in the interest of public, notify certain commodities as ‘essential’ in order to control the production, supply and distribution of such commodities.
The origins of this Act can be found in the Defence of India Act, 1939 (“DOI Act”) and the Defence of India Rules, 1939 (“DOI Rules”). The DOI Act and the DOI Rules conferred broad discretionary powers on the Government to regulate and prohibit the production, distribution, consumption, movement and disposal of goods notified by the Government and forbid the practice of controlling prices by withholding of goods from the market. The DOI Act and DOI Rules ceased to have force in 1946, but the need to have control over certain commodities to meet inflation and shortages persisted. Therefore, the Essential Supplies (Temporary Powers) Act, 1946 was enacted. Post-independence, keeping in mind the Constitutional principles and safeguards, the Act was enacted in 1955 and is the present legislation that regulates the market for “essential commodities”.
The term ‘essential commodities’ although not defined under the Act refers to the commodities listed in the Schedule of the Act. Until 05 June, 2020 the schedule had 9 commodities.
When an item is enlisted in the Schedule of the Act, the Central Government has the authority vested under Section 3 of the Act, to;
(i) Regulate its manufacture/ production by licenses and permits;
(ii) Control the price at which it is bought and sold;
(iii) Prohibit its withholding from sale;
(iv) Direct any person holding it in stock to sell whole/ part of the stock held;
(v) Regulate its storage, transport, use, consumption and disposal.
On 24 March 2020 the Ministry of Consumer Affairs further issued a control order to regulate the prices of 2 ply and 3 ply masks till 30 June 2020.
Three months into the pandemic, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, declared that, the 13 March 2020 and 24 March 2020 orders, notifying the masks and sanitizers as essential commodities and regulating their prices, will not be extended beyond 30 June 2020. The reason cited by the Ministry was that, face masks and hand sanitizers are no more essential products as their supply is sufficient in the country and therefore must be kept out of the purview of the Act.