As Covid-19 spurs panic buying, Centre keeps price tabs

Published on Mar 22, 2020 10:34 AM IST
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New Delhi: The Union government is tracking prices of household staples in nearly 600 centres across the country and has advised all states, especially those with transport restrictions such as Maharashtra, to allow interstate movement of trucks carrying essential supplies , a senior official in the consumer affairs ministry said.

Amid reports of a broad-based demand surge for household essentials in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Union government has set up teams to coordinate with states’ civil supplies departments. The official cited above said that during extensive reviews, no state had reported any shortage of any item covered under the Essential Commodities Act, implying that panic-buying had emptied stores at the retail end, which were being replenished by wholesale suppliers.

“The government must effectively monitor any hoarding because it is well-known that traders inevitably take advantage of such situations. Just recall the onion crisis. One-half of the responsibility is of course with the states’ civil supplies department,” said Anil Sanadhya of the Ahmedabad-based NGO Grahak Adhikar Suraksha Sansthan.

On Sunday, when the country goes into a voluntary lockdown from 7am to 9pm at the call of the Prime Minister, essentials supplies will be exempted. The Centre also advised states to enforce hygiene requirements, such as health screening, and tracking of drivers and helpers at their entry points and maintain records.

The Centre has also recommended that states such as Maharashtra and Kerala, which have reported the most number of Coronavirus cases, to allow delivery by online retailers in big cities, where movement restrictions are in force.

Consumer affairs and civil supplies secretary Pawan Agarwal, who reviewed the demand-supply situation through a videoconference, also asked states to strengthen local market intelligence. The Centre has told states that biometric authentication for retail sales to consumers under the Public Distribution System ought to be “temporarily suspended” to contain the Covid-19 outbreak.

The consumer affairs ministry, in coordination with the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, has, under relevant laws, directed manufacturers of hygiene products to crank up production and utilise their factories to full capacity. The Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation and director, legal metrology, were tracking prices and looking for any signs of hoarding.

Representatives from states and Union territories, such Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Daman, Goa, Haryana, J&K, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab and Uttarakhand, who were contacted by the central government, did not report scarcity of any products, the official cited in the first instance said.

Under the Essential Commodities Act, the Centre has also notified that the prices of materials used to manufacture two- and three-ply face masks will remain as they were on February 12. It also notified that retail prices of two-ply and three-ply masks cannot be more than Rs 8 and Rs 10 per unit.

Likewise, the raw material price of alcohol, used in making hand sanitisers, cannot be hiked without the approval of the Centre.

Some high-risk states are offering subsidised masks and sanitisers under the Centre’s public distribution system (PDS) network. The Union government has advised some other states to consider distributing subsidised hygiene products by allocating resources.

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    Zia Haq reports on public policy, economy and agriculture. Particularly interested in development economics and growth theories.

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