Time to make laws dealing with hoarding, black marketing more strict
Even though the second wave of Covid-19 seems to have peaked, the numbers are still high and the downward journey is expected to be long. Besides, unlike the first wave, this time the virus is spreading rapidly in rural areas with poor health infrastructure.
So the gap between demand and supply in terms of hospital beds, medicines, medical devices will continue to be wide, giving hoarders and black marketers ample opportunities to fish in troubled waters. The rural markets will also give all those rapacious gangs selling fake medicines and oxygen cylinders, a wide opening.
Going by the huge haul of fake Remdesivir being ‘manufactured’ and sold in different parts of the country, including Delhi, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, the racket seems widespread. While the Gujarat variety, which was also supplied to consumers in Madhya Pradesh, resulting in the death of at least ten patients, contained glucose and salt, those seized in Nagpur had plain water. More recently, there are reports of cheap antibiotics being sold as Remdesivir in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh. There are also cases of fire extinguishers being sold as oxygen cylinders in different parts of the country.
The need of the hour, therefore, is continuous and consistent action to curb not just black marketing of beds and essential medical supplies, but also sale of fake medicines and medical devices. And such action can no longer be limited to urban areas, but should extend to rural India.
This requires all agencies enforcing different applicable laws such as the Indian Penal code, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, the Essential Commodities Act, the Prevention of Blackmarketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act, the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, the Epidemic Act and the Disaster management Act, to come together and set up an exclusive cell to deal with all covid related unfair practices. Besides their own investigations, these cells in each state should follow up on consumer complaints of overpricing and fake drugs provided through toll-free telephone and WhatsApp numbers .
It is equally important to hand over the maximum punishment to those found guilty through summary trials and fast track courts set up exclusively for the purpose. While retired police personnel can be called back to take some load off the enforcement agencies, retired judges and even lawyers could adjudicate over these cases.
Even though the laws provide for imprisonment (can go up to seven years under the Essential Commodities Act ) or fine or both for hoarders and blackmarketers, the quantum of fine prescribed under the Essential Commodities Act is too meagre and the Centre needs to provide for higher penalty through an ordinance.
The financial penalties should be stiff enough to pay for the following: reimbursement of the extra amount collected from consumers, remunerations for the extra staff required for enforcement work and the running of the fast track courts and also contribution towards Covid relief work. Where it is possible to establish a direct link between hoarding and black marketing and loss of life, the financial penalty should also cover compensation to the victim’s family.
Under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, sale of spurious drugs likely to cause death or grievous hurt carry a sentence of ten years to life, besides fine of ₹10 lakhs or three times the value of the drugs seized. This fine also needs to be increased. The law provides for compensation to the victim or his family.
In addition to jail term, those convicted should also be made to work in Covid wards for at least a fortnight, cleaning toilets and wards
Lastly, adequate publicity should be given to each of these cases , particularly the severity of the punishment, so as to create the fear of the law in these Covid vultures. Today, these people are emboldened by the paralysis that seems to have gripped many governments. It’s time the governments showed that political will and determination to end the menace and instill confidence in the people that the state will protect them.