By Bijit Das and Isheta Srivastava
The coronavirus pandemic is causing a global surge, not only in the number of confirmed cases but also in the prices of basic essentials and commodities. While the global economy suffered exponential financial losses, the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) appeared as a lucrative opportunity to dupe ordinary consumers into splurging their valuable savings. Taking advantage of proliferation of hoax news and mass panic, there began mass hoarding and black marketing of such commodities. Amongst the first to disappear off the shelves were hand sanitizers and face masks and since then several newcomers are entering this profitable business to restore their financial state. The uber-luxury fashion conglomerate Louis Vuitton is one such contender which will soon start manufacture of hand sanitizers. Whilst there is no ban on sale of such essential commodities, selling them at unprecedented prices is not only unfair market practices but also immoral in nature as it defeats the very purpose of communal security and welfare.
Directives issued by Government Bodies
In lieu of spike in the number of cases and deaths due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Indian Government took a bold step of country-wide lockdown of 21 days to avoid community spread of the virus and issued a slew health advisories and directions to curb its spread. Directions were issued by various government bodies such as the Delhi Government and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare as well as the Indian Judiciary including the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. Notable measures included restriction on non-essential mass gathering at public places, sanitization of public areas, disclosure of travel history to affected countries in the past recent months, hand washing etc.
The Ministry had specifically issued guidelines on the appropriate use of face masks wherein it was directed that masks be worn only by infected people as there is no scientific evidence yet to show health benefit for non-sick people and thus, could lead to mass panic and false sense of security. Rather gave superior importance to use and throw tissues for coughing or sneezing, thorough hand-washing and social distancing techniques.
Surge in Demand of Essential Commodities
Despite the said efforts, a surge in demand and price of hand sanitizers and face masks has been observed by the Government and the same is overwhelming. As per reports, by March 15 there was over 500% increase in the demand for sanitizers and over 300% in face masks. This in turn led to indiscriminate pricing of the disputed commodities and sale in the markets, including e-commerce platforms. To stabilise this the Ministry of Consumer Affairs vide its notification dated March 13, with a view to regulate the production, quality, distribution, logistics of masks (2Ply and 3Ply surgical masks and N95 masks) and hand sanitizers, declared them as essential commodities. Subsequently, fixed the retail prices to a maximum of Rs. 10 (3Ply mask), Rs. 8 (2Ply mask) and Rs. 100 per 200ml of hand sanitizer.
Is PIL the way towards social and equitable justice?
A Bench of Supreme Court Justices L. Nageswara Rao and S. Abdul Nazeer on April 01, 2020 heard a plea filed by one, Justice for Rights Foundation in the case of Justice for Rights Foundation & Ors. V. Union of India & Ors., wherein the Petitioner prayed for directing the Centre to ensure fair distribution and price control of essential commodities inter alia hand sanitizers and face masks amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The Hon’ble Apex Court permitted the Petitioner to serve a copy of the petition to the Centre. The matter is next listed for hearing on April 06, 2020.
The nature of the virus being communicable, transfers through water droplets if an infected person is within close range and thus, it is advisable to take all precautionary measures necessary. It was contended by the petitioner that despite declaring these aforementioned commodities as essential by an Order of the Centre, there was lag in the enforcement of their supply and distribution. Further, the prices have not been regulated as per the Centre’s narrative and it was prayed to issue directions for a strict discharge of Centre’s duty towards public welfare and health care and, to ensure fair and equitable distribution and availability of such essential commodities to the public at large amidst the harsh times of pandemic.
A similar PIL was also filed before the Delhi High Court, seeking the immediate intervention of the Hon’ble Court in issuing directions to the Delhi Government for providing face masks and hand sanitizers to all the prisoners inhabiting in the prisons and settling up isolation jails for unwell convicts, much like the measures taken up by the State government in Kerala.
The Directive Principles as enshrined in the Indian Constitution are to be read in harmony with the Fundamental Rights. Article 21 (Protection to life and personal liberty) and Article 47 (Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health) holds the State accountable for providing accessible and affordable health care facilities to the public. Although, the speedy initiative of the Government in the wake of novel coronavirus is commendable, adequate and effective measures are the need of the present times and affordable medical care is a basic human right. Many MNCs and conglomerates, in lieu of their corporate social responsibility are aiding the Government in their initiative of curbing the price and supply of essential commodities by way of funds or contributions. FMCG manufacturers Hindustan Unilever and Himalaya Drug, who have pledged to increase in their production capacity and maintain the fair price of these essential commodities in these times. Individual efforts such as indigenous invention of the National Institute of Technology Karnataka (NITK) in manufacturing and selling of hand sanitizers at free of cost. Responsible journalism and pro-hygiene advertisements are also important tools in spreading awareness and not the virus. The fight against the coronavirus is not an individual but a communal. Strict adherence to the Government’s directives and advisors in practicing social distancing and personal hygiene is the duty of every responsible citizen in the fight against the pandemic.
 https://main.sci.gov.in/pdf/LU/15032020_072250.pdf; accessed on April 02, 2020 (pg. no. 10 and 11)
 Can’t get hand sanitizer, face mask in shops? Demand rises over 5 times in these Indian cities; https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/cant-get-hand-sanitizer-face-mask-in-shops-demand-rises-over-5-times-in-these-indian-cities/1895614/; accessed on April 02, 2020
 Essential Commodities Order dated March 13, 2020; https://consumeraffairs.nic.in/sites/default/files/file-uploads/essential-commodities-order/1087.pdf; accessed on April 02, 2020
 Essential Commodities Order dated March 21, 2020 – https://consumeraffairs.nic.in/sites/default/files/file-uploads/essential-commodities-order/1197.pdf; accessed on April 02, 2020
 WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) Diary No(s). 10792/2020
 Coronavirus in India: PIL in Delhi HC seeks distribution of face-masks, hand sanitizers to prisoners; https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/coronavirus-in-india-pil-in-delhi-hc-seeks-distribution-of-face-masks-hand-sanitizers-to-prisoners-1658148-2020-03-21; accessed on April 02, 2020
https://www.hul.co.in/news/news-and-features/2020/committed-towards-combating-covid-19.html; https://himalayawellness.in/ ; accessed on April 02, 2020
 Covid-19: NITK develops hand sanitizer; distributes for free ; https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/covid-19-nitk-develops-hand-sanitizer-distributes-for-free/articleshow/74936224.cms; accessed on April 02, 2020