The Essential Commodities Act, 1955 (ECA) has been enacted by the Government to control production, supply or distribution of essential commodities or for maintaining or increasing supply of essential commodities or for securing equitable distribution and preventing hoarding of essential commodities and; for the availability of essential commodities at fair prices to the consumers and to protect them from exploitation by unscrupulous traders.
What are the Essential Commodities?
The Central Government has included the following 7 (Seven) commodities as the Essential Commodities:
- Drugs (as defined in Section 3(b) of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940);
- Fertilizer, whether organic, inorganic or mixed;
- Foodstuffs, including edible oilseeds and oils;
- Hank yarn made wholly from cotton;
- Petroleum and petroleum products;
- Raw Jute and Jute Textile;
- Seeds of food crops and seeds of fruits and vegetables;
- Seeds of cattle fodder;
- Jute Seeds; and
- Cotton Seed
The ECA gives powers to the Central Government to add or remove any commodity from the Schedule of the Essential Commodities from time to time if it is satisfied that it is necessary to do so in the public interest and for any such reasons which shall be specified in the notification to be issued in that regards by the Government.
The Central Government, on being satisfied that it is necessary to do so for controlling the rise in prices or preventing the hoarding of any foodstuff in any locality, it may by notification direct the price at which that foodstuff shall be sold in the locality. The Central Government also has the power to decide the price for any such Essential Commodities as and when it feels necessary to do so to control the supply or distribution of such Essential Commodities or to control its price or prevent hoarding. Any notification issued in this regard shall remain in force for such period not exceeding 3 (Three) months as may be specified in the notification.
Few other measures to control the Essential Commodities include:
- issuing licenses, permits etc. to enable/ increase the production/ manufacture of Essential Commodities;
- controlling the storage, transport, distribution, disposal, acquisition, use or consumption of any Essential Commodity;
- Fixing the stocking limit for a specificEssential Commodity
The Central Government may, by notified order, delegate the powers and impose duties on the following authorities to make orders or issue a notification to regulate/ control the production, supply, distribution, sale, pricing, etc. of Essential Commodities or discharging any such duties:
- such officer or authority subordinate to the Central Government; or
- such State Government or such officer or such authority subordinate to a State Government
The Government has the following powers if any person is found contravening the provisions of the ECA or any orders/ notifications issued under the ECA:
i) Confiscation of Essential Commodity (it shall not prevent the infliction of any punishment liable under the ECA)
ii) Seizure of Essential Commodity
iii) Imprisonment of 3 (Three) months to 7 (Seven) years depending on the contravention
iv) Imposing fine
All the offences punishable under the ECA shall be cognizable.
The Prevention of Blackmarketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act, 1980(PBMSECA)was enacted on 15th October, 1979 to provide for detention in certain cases for prevention of black marketing and maintenance of supplies of Essential Commodities essential to the community and for matters connected therewith.
Who can be detained?
If a person is found to be:
i) committing or instigating any person to commit any offence punishable under the ECA or under any other law for the time being in force relating to the control of the production, supply or distribution of, or trade and commerce in, any commodity essential to the community; or
ii) dealing in any commodity-
a) which is an Essential Commodity as defined in the ECA or
b) with respect to which provisions have been made in any such other law as is referred to in clause a) above,
with a view to making gain in any manner which may directly or indirectly defeat or tend to defeat the provisions of that Act or other law aforesaid.
Further, the detention order can be executed at any place in India in the manner provided for the execution of warrants of arrest under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and no detention order shall be invalid or inoperative merely by reason-
i) that the person to be detained thereunder is outside the limits of the territorial jurisdiction of the Government or officer making the order, or
ii) that the place of detention of such person is outside the said limits.
Period of Detention:
The maximum period for which any person may be detained shall be 6 (Six) months from the date of detention.
Current COVID-19 Situation
Considering the dangerous health situation due to COVID-19 disease, the Department of Consumer Affairs, India has recently on 13th March, 2020 added the following items as Essential Commodities in the existing list till 30th June, 2020: Masks (2ply & 3ply surgical masks, N95 masks) & hand sanitizers
Further, the Department of Consumer Affairs has on 19th March, 2020 also issued a notification for regulating the production, quality, distribution, prices and other aspects of alcohols used in manufacturing the hand sanitizers. The notification further states that the raw material used in manufacturing Essential Commodity shall also be treated as Essential Commodity. It also states that the prices of alcohols used in the manufacturing of hand sanitizers shall not exceed from those prevailing on 05th March, 2020 without the concurrence of the Central Government.
Further, the Department of Consumer Affairs has on 21st March, 2020 issued a notification (to be in force till 30th June, 2020) to regulate the prices of masks (2ply & 3ply), the Melt Blown non-woven fabric used as a raw material in production of masks and hand sanitizers as stated below:
i) Retail Prices of Melt blown non-woven fabric used in the manufacturing of masks (2ply & 3ply), shall not be more than the prices prevailing on the day one month before 13th March, 2020, i.e. the prices prevailing on 12th February, 2020
ii) Retail prices of masks (3ply surgical masks) shall not be more than the prices prevailing on the day one month prior to 13th March, 2020, i.e. as on 12th February, 2020 or not more than Rs. 10 per piece whichever is lower and that of the mask (2ply) shall not be more than Rs. 8 per piece.
iii) Retail prices of hand sanitizer shall not be more than Rs. 100/- per bottle of 200ml the prices of other quantities of hand sanitizers shall be fixed in the proportion of these prices.
Hoarding or Blackmarketing
Any hoarding of food-stuffs or masks or hand sanitizers or drugs or any such Essential Commodities essential to the community, in this challenging time, by any person shall lead to their detention under the PBMSECA and also liable to be penalized under the ECA.
However, hoarding is as such not defined in any of these Acts, but hoarding in the general sense means to accumulate food-stuffs or medicines or like Essential Commodities in a hidden or carefully guarded place for preservation for future use during the times of crisis or disasters or on an assumption of shortage in coming future. The Department of Consumer Affairs from time to time issue orders deciding the limit for stocking of each type of foodstuffs by a different type of sellers (like wholesalers and retailers) and for revoking or re-imposing such limits.
So, if any person selling any such Essential Commodities is found to be hoarding food-stuffs, masks, hand sanitizers, drugs, etc. or black marketing such commodities by hyping the demand and limiting the supply purposely to take undue advantage of the situation to earn undue profits shall be punishable under the provisions of the ECA and also liable for detention under the PBMSECA.
If any consumer of such Essential Commodities faces any such issue of overpricing of the Essential Commodities or hoarding or blackmarketing of Essential Commodities by any seller, then such consumer can register its complaint with the local police or to the District Officer or with the National Consumer Helpline number 1800-11-4000 or online at www.consumerhelpline.gov.in or www.consumeraffairs.nic.in.