The Edition, April 25, 2020

By George Cheriyan

Both the central and state consumer affairs departments need to enhance monitoring, and inspection visits to the markets and ensure supply of essential commodities at real price across the country to prevent black marketing, hoarding, and price inflation of essential commodities.

While India is on the thirty first day of national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, consumer woes continue. Reports from various parts of the country point to the fact that the stock of essential items including perishables, food grains, packaged items, pharmaceutical products, consumer durables and dairy products are thinning out from all over the country, due to continuing curbs on the movement. This is leading to price rise. Consumers continue to face the difficulties and are confused with the meaning of essential services and commodities, people responsible for ensuring the delivery of the items and if not delivered whom and how to approach.

Ensuring Essential Commodities

As soon as the lockdown was declared in India, the Essential Commodities (EC) Act, 1955 was invoked by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, and even had sanitisers and facemasks under the purview of the EC Act until June 30 and capped the prices. Essential commodity means any of the commodities listed out in the schedule such as foodstuffs including edible oils and oilseeds, drugs, fertilisers, cattle fodders, newsprint, petroleum and petroleum products. The law further confers that the Central government has the power to add or remove any other commodity in public interest from this list and empower it to control their prices. If anyone violate the norms, States can take strict action under the EC Act and the Prevention of Black Marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities (PBMMSEC) Act, which includes fine and/or imprisonment from 6 months to seven years.

Realities on the ground

However, in spite of government’s strict instruction to sellers and assurance to the consumers, the price of most of the essential commodities including vegetables have skyrocketed and consumers are facing shortages. Media reports from various parts of the country brings to light that an average of 20-30 percent in the price of groceries, almost 40 percent in the price of vegetables, essential ones like chillies, onions, potatoes, and tomatoes, had increased and overall food prices surged three times, as supply chain has taken a hit. Traders in Delhi reveals nearly 60 percent of major green vegetables are not reaching the wholesale markets, due to the restriction of ‘one vehicle per trader’ rule against 3-5 vehicles per trader earlier, which is creating a shortage in supply.

The lockdown has also pushed up the price of meat. As per media reports, a kilogram of mutton is now being sold at Rs 1,100 to Rs 1,200 in cities like Hyderabad, against Rs 800 to Rs 900 earlier. Meat traders attribute the increase in the price to shortage of cattle in the market, due to the lockdown.

Most of the big retail chains, which were selling consumer goods for much less than the printed Maximum Retail Price (MRP), are now selling the products at the MRP. In addition, most of the schemes like buy one and get one free is withdrawn. Even Cooking Gas agencies have stopped the supply of gas cylinders at the door steps of residential colonies. The consumers are now left with no other option than to collect it from nearby godowns at additional cost. In addition, there is a shortage of supply of essential medicines for diabetics, hypertension etc. at the level of local retailers. Even after including under EC Act, masks are sold at a higher price.

Large scale migration of labourers to home states is also resulting in shortage of required labour in the whole sale markets in various states. Transporters are working just at 15-20 percent of their capacity, since most of the workforce to load the goods or drive the trucks is not available. This too is causing huge increase in transportation cost.

Capability to enforce

While the Centre has assured adequate food stock and instructed States to ensure adequate food supply, one really needs to ponder if the States are acting seriously, or even have such efficient delivery mechanism to reach out to all corners of the country and the consumers. Other than the state of Kerala, the distribution of free or subsidised ration of food grains through the Fair Price Shops, have not fully succeeded in any of the other States.

Haryana had gone for rate capping of essential commodities including pulses, sugar, salt, wheat, flour, potatoes and onions. Shopkeepers are not supposed to sell any product above the capped rate. They have been directed to display the rate list outside their shops, so that no overcharging is done. However, enforcement of these measures is a humongous challenge.

It’s largely reported that the authorities at the check posts in various Atates are imposing unnecessary restrictions even on movement of trucks loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables due to lack of clarity at their levels.

Global pattern

Apart from the hurdle in food supply chain, consumers are facing a variety of other issues. Consumers International, which is the global voice of consumers and the apex consumer body did a survey of 100 consumer organisation members in all parts of the world. Their report revealed a familiar pattern of problems faced by the consumers and calls for swift action to protect not just health but access to essential services like food, utilities, finance and internet connections at a price that leaves no one out. To add to the woe, Ooklas Speedtest Global Index data suggests there is a sharp decline in both mobile data speed and fixed broadband download speed and consumers are not getting uninterrupted service, when a chunk of the working class is working from home.

Need for Pro-active and Suo-moto action

This is the time when the department of consumer affairs at both the Centre and States need to become more proactive and ensure supply of essential commodities at real price across the country. State department of consumer affairs need to enhance monitoring, surveillance, intelligence gathering and inspection visits to the markets, to prevent black marketing, hoarding, and price inflation of essential commodities, and take suo-moto actions, along with other law enforcement officials. Dedicated national and state consumer helplines need to be activated and instructed to take up complaints from consumers about price rise, shortage etc. on priority and ensure speedy redressal.

Consumers need to be mass educated through print, electronic and social media continuously and encouraged to report difficulties faced by them during lockdown. Let us work together in our mission to educate and protect the consumers and help them avoid falling victims during the lockdown. Government should never tolerate those businesses that seek to take advantage of the consumers’ plight and fear during this global pandemic.

GEORGE CHERIYAN is Director, CUTS International 

This article can also be viewed at: