Essential Commodities Act, Lockdown, Store, Shop, Food (1)

In our daily lives, we tend to use several merchandise and commodities which are essential to meet our necessities, particularly with relevance to food, clothes, health, education and transportation etc. To keep a balance between demand and supply and to ensure that there is no scarcity of such essential commodities, the Government of India passed the Essential Commodities Act, 1995, which came into effect from 1st April 1955. It had been passed ‘in the interest of the general public, for the control of the production, supply and distribution of certain commodities’, while making these available at a fair price.

What is the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 (ECA)?

The Essential Commodities Act, 1955 (ECA) was enacted to determine that the essential commodities, as defined under Section 2(a) of the Act, are available to all and to contain unfair practices like stocking of items, selling commodities at higher prices, creating artificial scarcity within the market or black marketing. Thus, the Act prevents unnecessary storage of essential commodities and strives to affirm the equitable distribution of essential commodities. 

The Act applies to the whole territory of India. The essential commodities, as defined within the Act, are:

(i) Fodder for cattle, which incorporates oil cakes and other concentrates

(ii) Coal; cake or other derivatives

(iii) Parts and accessories of automobiles.

(iv) Textiles of cotton and wool

(v) Drugs/medicines

(vi) Food items, including edible oilseeds and oils.

(vii) Iron and steel, including manufactured products of those.

(viii) Paper, including newsprints, paper board and strawboard.

(ix) Petroleum and petroleum products

(x) Raw cotton (ginned or unginned) and cottonseed.

(xi) Raw jute

Other than these, the Central Government has been conferred with the power to incorporate any other commodity it deems essential under this Act, by issuing a notified order. It can do so at the time of crisis or need and can remove them from the list once the situation improves.

The main objective of this Act is to control the production process, supply and distribution system of trade commerce in various commodities while seeing that they are available at a fair price and there are no unfair trade practices like black marketing or inflation in the price of the commodities.

Salient features of the Act

  1. Government has the power to fix the price of commodities, that is, the maximum retail price (MRP) of any packaged essential commodity. It also looks after the labelling of the commodities which are to be as per the rules provided in the Prevention of Food and Adulteration Act and Weight & Measure Act, 1976. This ensures that minimum quality standards of commodities are met along with the sanitation and hygiene of a product. This is most important in the case of food items.
  2. Government has the power to add or remove items as essential commodities depending upon the need of the people. It can add a commodity under the Act for a specific time and remove it accordingly if the need is met or the crisis subsides. Items like steel, iron, exercise books and herbicides, etc. have been removed from the list of essential commodities by the Government. The Government is also deciding to add onions and potatoes to the list under this Act.
  3. Central Government has been conferred powers to issue orders, regulations and notices- The Central Government has been given various powers under Section 3 of the Act. It can issue various orders and notices for (a) looking after, increasing or prohibiting the supply of a certain commodity, (b) for seeing there is equitable distribution of the commodities, (c) for seeing they are available at a reasonable price to all, (d) for issuing licenses, (e) issuing stock limits, or (e) for conducting raids and confiscating commodities kept in stock in excess. 

The Central Government can impose regulations and orders on the State Governments as provided under Section 4 of the Act. The States can either take the essential steps to ensure that these regulations are adhered to, or it can refuse to enforce them. However, in case there is a difference between the States and the Central Government, the latter will prevail.

4. Authorities have the power to confiscate commodities- According to Section 6 of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, the power to order confiscation of commodities is conferred upon the Central Government as well as to the District Collector. If any person trading in the essential commodities, hoards or stocks these beyond a certain quantity or certain stock limit as given by the Government, then the Government can either direct such person to sell these in the market or confiscate them.

However, in cases of confiscation, the following have been kept in mind-

i) While upholding the principles of natural justice, Section 6A of the Act provides that before any order of confiscation of a commodity is issued, a written notice has to be sent to the offender containing the grounds of confiscation. The offender should also be given a reasonable time to reply to the notice.

ii) In case a person is aggrieved by confiscation of the commodities, according to Section 6C, he can file an appeal within one month of receiving such an order.

5.  Punishment– offences under this Act are recognised as cognizable offences. Violation of any of the provisions or regulations as given by the Central or State Governments will be punishable with –

i. According to Section 7 of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955: imprisonment for a term varying from 3 months up to 7 years, or with fine or both, depending upon the offence committed. If the court may deem it necessary, it can also forfeit the property of the offender.

ii. According to Section 3 of the Prevention of Black Marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act (PBMMSEC Act): with detention up to six months maximum.

Power to arrest as under this Act is given to the officer in charge of the police station or any officer appointed in writing by him. 

In case any person makes a false statement voluntarily/intentionally, he shall be published with imprisonment for a term extending to 5 years or fine or with both, as under Section 9 of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.

6. The Act is executed by the Food and civil supply authorities of India. 

7. Any case covered under this Act can be filed in a criminal court.

8. The burden of proof on the offender- Under Section 14, the burden of proof is upon the person charged of committing an offence under this Act, and he has to establish that he had the authority, permit, license to carry on the Act. 

9. No action against a person acting in good faith- Section 15 of the Act provides that anyone empowered by law to take actions, acting in good faith while carrying on his/her duty shall be protected and no judicial proceedings can be initiated against the Government for any damage caused in the process.  

Significant orders passed under this Act

The important Orders passed to control food, and its processing are:

  1. Fruit Products Order, 1955
  2. Sugar Control Order, 1966
  3. Milk and Milk Products Order, 1992
  4. Meat Food Products Order, 1973
  5. Edible Oils Packing (Regulation) Order, 1998
  6. Vegetable Oil Products (Regulation) Order, 1998

The relevance of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 during COVID-19 lockdown

Recently with the outbreak of the pandemic, various countries in the world, including India, declared a nationwide lockdown. To combat the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Government of India also issued various essential guidelines and regulations to combat the further spread of the virus. Along with social distancing, masks and hand sanitizers were prescribed to stop further contamination. However, amidst this global crisis, there was a shortage of these items and an increase in their black marketing. These were not available in the market, and if available, they were being sold at a much higher price, which not everybody could afford.

According to a report by Economic Times, at some places’ normal surgical masks usually sold for Rs 10 were sold for around Rs 40 and higher, and the N95 masks usually sold for Rs 150 were sold for around Rs 500′.

Thus, to see that there is enough production of hand sanitizers and masks as also to ensure that they are of standard quality and are distributed properly, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs added these two items under the list of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 on 14th March 2020. Making these available to all at a reasonable price is the priority of the Government as, during this hour of distress, these are essential commodities that can help people to protect themselves and lower the risks of contamination.

The masks added under the purview of the Act are the N-95, 2-ply and 3-ply masks. These, along with the hand sanitizers shall be produced in the right quantity and quality under the supervision of the Government. Price fixed by the Government for a 2-ply mask is Rs. 8, while it’s Rs. 10 for 3-ply masks and for a standard 200ml hand sanitiser bottle price is kept at Rs. 100. These prices shall be applicable until 30th June 2020.

For those who face shortage or non-availability of any of these commodities or find that these are being sold at a higher price than what has been fixed by the Government, they can file a complaint by using the National Consumer Helpline (NCH) number 1800-11-4000 or online at www.consumerhelpline.gov.in or www.consumeraffairs.nic.in/ through the National Helpline Consumer app.

The Essential Commodities Act, 1955 (ECA) is very essential to see that at the time of such a crisis, people do not face scarcity of essential commodities, especially medical and food commodities. During the lockdown, when everyone is advised to stay at home, it becomes the responsibility of the Government to see that the people are provided with all the essential items, and there is no scarcity of these in the market. 

Conclusion:

The Essential Commodities Act, 1955 (ECA) empowers the Government to make provisions regarding sufficient production, efficient supply and equitable distribution of essential commodities while making them available at a fair price. 

This Act plays a major role during situations like lockdown to see that the people are provided with sufficient commodities which are essential for the day to day life. From proper distribution and availability of food, masks, sanitizers and other items, powers conferred by the Act to the Government also ensure that the product is of standard quality. Anyone found not complying with the rules or guidelines shall be held liable and punished subsequently.

Thus, the Act safeguards the interest of the people while keeping in mind their basic needs. It provides remedies to those affected and punishments to those who carry on with unfair practices at the cost of the general public. It also safeguards those who while exercising their powers under the Act, act in good faith to protect the interest of the general public. Therefore, the Act has huge importance and application, especially at the time of crisis, like during the lockdown.