Surgical masks sold at inflated rates in Mumbai despite price cap by Centre

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Published on May 30, 2020 11:54 PM IST
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ByRupsa Chakraborty

Despite the price of two- and three-layer surgical masks being capped by the Centre, many medical stores continue to sell the masks at inflated prices. While the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) has conducted raids in Pune, no action has been taken against medical stories in Mumbai that are charging higher prices for masks.

In March, when Maharashtra reported its first case of Covid-19, the demand for masks increased by 400% in the state and its retail price doubled. On March 21, the Union ministry of consumer affairs said that the maximum retail price for two- and three-ply ‘surgical’ face masks must be capped at Rs 8 and Rs 10 per piece respectively.

Since then, FDA, the apex regulating body, has raided seven medical stores in Maharashtra for overpricing of masks. The highest number of raids (four) were conducted in Pune. There have been no raids conducted in Mumbai.

JN Mantri, joint commissioner, Maharashtra FDA, said no consumer complaints have been made in Mumbai. “We haven’t received any complaint from the city yet. We have conducted one raid in Thane. People can call at 1800-222-365 to file complaints,” he said.

HT checked with leading medical stores in Mumbai and found surgical masks continue to be sold at inflated prices, ranging from Rs 20 to Rs 30. If the medical store is near a Covid hospital, the price increases further.

“The demand of the masks is the highest near the hospitals. So the medical stores sell it at the maximum price range. Sometimes, the price gets as high as Rs 50 but there is no one to keep an eye on them despite the capping,” said Abhay Pandey, national president, All Food and Drug Licence Holder Foundation (AFDLHF).

Explaining FDA’s process, Mantri said, “On [receiving] tip-offs, we send officers as customers to buy masks. Then we catch them [sellers] red-handed. Though we don’t seize the masks, we give warnings and transfer the cases to National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority.”

Activists said citizens’ rights are being violated as the arbitrarily-raised prices reduce people’s access to medical amenities during the pandemic. “Till January, surgical masks cost only Rs 2. Firstly, the cap imposed on the pricing is much higher. Secondly, it is not even implemented. In Singapore, the government has installed mask-vending machines, which provide masks free of cost. In India, Covid-19 has turned into a business,” said Anjali Damania, founder-trustee of Voice of Indian Taxpayers, a non-governmental organisation.

Sunita Mishra, 34-year-old, a private nurse, said, “I have to take care of two bedridden patients, one in the morning and the other one in the evening. So, I can’t repeat the same mask for both patients. This costs me Rs50 daily. Then, while going out for groceries, I have to put on my third mask. Every month, I spend around Rs 2,000 only on masks.”

As per the World Health Organization (WHO), masks are essential for the prevention of Covid-19. Last month, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) made wearing masks when outdoors compulsory to reduce the spread of the infection.

No cap on N95 masks

Though N95 masks have been declared essential commodity under the Essential Commodities Act, there is no cap on its price. Private hospitals, nursing homes and small clinics are forced to buy these masks at exorbitant prices, which is usually added to a patient’s bill. “NPPA [National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority], the regulating body, is supposed to bring the mask under its cap as an essential commodity, but it hasn’t so far, which is leading to black marketing and hoarding,” said Damania. The mask, which was priced at Rs 20 prior to the outbreak, now costs Rs 350 in Mumbai. For those buying in bulk, traders sell N95 masks for Rs 274 per piece.

Last week, NPPA held a meeting with makers, importers and suppliers of N95 masks to maintain parity in prices. “Haffkine Institute provided the masks at Rs 42. If the private companies don’t reduce the rate after warning, we will bring it under cap,” said an NPPA officer.

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