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Essential Commodities Act

Published: 23rd Mar, 2020

The government declared face masks and hand sanitisers as essential commodities for the next 100 days as it stepped up efforts to boost supply and prevent.


The government declared face masks and hand sanitisers as essential commodities for the next 100 days as it stepped up efforts to boost supply and prevent hoarding of these items in its fight to check the spread of coronavirus


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

What products are generally classified as essential commodities?

  • 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.

The decision:

  • Both masks (2-ply and 3-ply surgical masks, N95 masks) and hand sanitisers have been brought under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.
  • It will empower states and Union Territories to regulate production, distribution and prices of these items and also crack down on hoarding and black-marketing.
  • It also empowers to carry out operations against speculators and those involved in over-pricing and black-marketing.

The need:

  • The coronavirus pandemichas triggered panic buying of masks and hand sanitisers at many places around the world, including in India.
  • In view of the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, masks and hand sanitisers are either not available in the market or are available with great difficulty at exorbitant prices.
  • Due to this, the government took this step. It has also issued an advisory under the Legal Metrology Act.
  • The purpose of designating any commodity as “essential” is to prevent profiteering at a time of extraordinary demand.
  • This decision will enhance the availability of both the items to the general people at reasonable prices or at MRP (maximum retail price).

Masks and hand sanitisers are ‘essential’ to combat the novel coronavirus?

  • 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.
  • Doctors and health experts have underlined that the use of masks is helpful only if one have symptoms, or if he/she is caring for someone who has symptoms.
  • The infection is spreading mostly through infected surfaces — and masks, especially the cheap surgical ones, cannot 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 one uses a hand sanitiser, ensure that is alcohol-based, with at least 60% alcohol content.
  • So-called “herbal” hand sanitisers are not useful.

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