Anjali Damania, Sucheta Dalal
A PIL has been moved in the Bombay High Court alleging rampant black marketing and profiteering in the sale of N95 protective face masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic by journalist Sucheta Dalal and Anjali Damania.
The Bombay High Court has now queried after why there is no cap on the prices of N95 masks, especially since it has been notified as an essential commodity under the Essential Commidiites Act, 1955. The Government to respond on the concerns raised by Friday.
While arranging to provide N95 masks to frontine medical workers amid the pandemic through their NGOs, the petitioners allege to have received unsolicited messages from multiple dealers and traders offering to sell N95 masks at a markup of over 150%.
In the PIL filed through Advocate Mihir Joshi, it is stated that the petitioners’ NGOs had decided to try arranging for the provision of N95 masks for health workers following rising concern over the lack of personal protective gear for such personnel amid the pandemic. To this end, they had initially contacted two companies producing N95 or equivalent masks around Mumbai, i.e. Venus Safety and Health Pvt. Ltd. and Magnum Health and Safety Pvt. Ltd.
These companies eventually agreed to provide 5,000 and 3,200 N95 masks to the the concerned NGOs at the rate of Rs.40/- + GST and Rs.60/- + GST per mask respectively.
However, when contacted again for another procurement of these masks, the two companies are stated to have told the petitioners that the entire stock of these masks had been taken over by the Government. Therefore, the petitioner NGOs’ requests for masks were denied.
However, after the petitioners were stonewalled by the production company, it is alleged that they were contacted by multiple dealers and traders offering to sell 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 (Venus Safety and Health Pvt. Ltd.). These messages 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”, the Petitioners state.
It is added that one, Pari Enterprises, a sole proprietorship firm supposedly a manufacturer and supplier of drinking water bottles and drinking water jars, was one of such dealers. Further, it is alleged that the firm not only offered for sale hoarded N95 masks, but also offered to take advance bookings of N95 masks manufactured by Venus Safety Health Pvt. Ltd.”The Petitioners state 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.”PIL petitioners
The petitioners go on to raise concern that “if the entirety of the stock of Respondent No.10 Company was being acquired by the Government as the Petitioners had been informed then where had these dealers acquired their stocks of lakhs of N-95 masks and more troublingly how were they replenishing the said stock?”
Inter alia, it is also submitted that the prices quoted by Venus for the N95 masks to the petitioners’ NGOs were also much higher than the price at which they are stated to have been procured in January this year by the Haffkine Bio Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited. In this regard, the petition states, “Respondent No.10 Company had sold 92,500 masks to the Haffkine Bio Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited at just Rs.17.33/- per mask.””.. these acts of hoarding and profiteering has worsened an already dire situation. While our frontline workers are forced to perform their duties without adequate protective gear and mask. A scarcity of protective gear is being compounded further by hoarders and profiteers seeking to make a windfall by jeopardizing the health of crores of people.”the Petitioners state.
It is also noted 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 calling on the Bombay High Court to direct the compliance of these notifications and ensure the adequate availability of masks at fair prices, the petitioners have 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.