Corruption anytime undermines the structure or governance but corruption in the time of Covid-19 pandemic is unforgivable. At a time when health workers are finding it difficult to get PPE during a pandemic, companies manufacturing N95 masks are making a fast buck. The root of the problem is the fact that the State has not fixed the controlled price of masks, despite the fact that they have been declared essential commodities
THE Bombay High Court on Tuesday asked the counsel for the Central Government to come back by Friday with some clarity on why prices are not capped although N-95 masks has been brought under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.
When the Additional Solicitor General (ASG) informed the bench of chief justice Dipankar Datta and justice SS Shinde that the government had already capped prices of two-ply, three-ply masks and hand sanitisers, the bench orally directed him to take instructions on what the central government has done regarding the representation sent by Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on prices of N95 masks.
The court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by journalist Sucheta Dalal and social activist Anjali Damani alleging black marketing, hoarding and profiteering of N-95 masks in the State of Maharashtra, despite the declaration of these masks as essential commodities under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.
The Petitioners asserted that the State of Maharashtra failed in their duty to ensure that sufficient availability of surgical masks and other masks at fair prices.
“N-95 masks are being sold at marked-up rates of over 150% by insidious dealers. This has resulted in the inadequate access to masks by the frontline workers and till date over 800 frontline workers have tested positive mainly due to the lack of protective gear, including N-95 masks”, the PIL stated.
Further, petitioners stated that not only are these dealers illegally profiteering on the said N95 masks but are also issuing invoices to that effect. One, Glance Production sold 16,000 N95 masks at the price of Rs. 225/- per mask.
Petitioners submitted that it was during their endeavour to acquire these protective kits and N95 masks for our frontline workers that they witnessed rampant black marketeering and profiteering in N95 masks and the abject failure of the State machinery to implement the order dated March 13 passed under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.
According to the petitioners, there are two companies producing N95 or equivalent masks around Mumbai: Venus Safety and Health Pvt. Ltd. (at Taloja Industrial Area) and Magnum Health and Safety Pvt. Ltd. (near Palghar).
As per the averments made in the petition, when the petitioners’ organizations approached these manufacturers to acquire N95 masks, they were informed that the entire production of the said masks was being acquired by the Government and hence there was no stock left for dissemination to the consumers and refused to accept the Petitioners’ organizations’ purchase requests.
In the meanwhile, according to the petition, the State of Maharashtra brought in the requirement that sellers as well as purchasers for N95 masks needed to be approved by the state government’s Haffkine Institute. One the companies eventually agreed to provide 5,000 and 3,200 N95 masks to petitioners’ organization at the rate of Rs.40/- + GST and Rs.60/- + GST per mask respectively.
Petitioners further alleged that when they approached one of the companies for more N95 masks so that they could in turn be provided to the frontline workers, the Petitioners were informed that no orders would be accepted as all of their production was booked. They claimed that their entire production had been taken over by the Government
“But, to the Petitioners shock and surprise soon after the Petitioners were stonewalled by Respondent No.10 Company they started receiving unsolicited messages from multiple dealers and traders offering to sell to the Petitioners’ organizations the N95 masks at a markup of over 150%. The Petitioners were flooded with WhatsApp messages, along with photographic proof of availability of stocks of N95 masks being manufactured by Respondent No.10 Company”, the petitioners alleged.
These messages, according to the petitioners, were accompanied by videos showcasing proof of stock, some of the dealers were ready to provide as many as 1 lakh N95 masks at the price of Rs.210/- + GST. These dealers were selling N95 masks produced by both Respondent No.10 Company and Magnum Health and Safety Pvt. Ltd.
In their plea, petitioners sought the directions of the Court to the government of Maharashtra in order to ensure sufficient availability of masks, sanitizers and gloves at the fair price set by the Maharashtra government. Further, the petition also prayed for the confiscation of the N-95 masks that are being hoarded by the profiteers in the market.
Petitioners also highlighted that this is being done dispute notifications issued by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and the Ministry of Chemical and Fertilizers to prevent the black marketing, hoarding and profiteering of such notified essential commodities.
Apart from seeking direction to comply with these notifications and ensure the adequate availability of masks at fair prices, the petitioners also prayed that the Court order the confiscation of N95 masks that are being hoarded by profiteers.
Further, it is urged that prosecution be initiated against the companies and individuals indulging in hoarding and illegal profiteering.