The Bombay High Court on Tuesday asked the Union of India to inform whether a decision has been taken regarding capping the prices of N-95 masks that are being sold across the country in light of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice SS Shinde was hearing a PIL filed by journalist Sucheta Dalal and activist Anjali Damania seeking directions against hoarding, black marketing of N-95 masks in the State to ensure availability of these masks for 'Corona Warriors' in the State.
Senior Advocate Mihir Desai appeared on behalf of the petitioners, Government pleader Poornima Kantharia for the State and Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh for the Union of India.
ASG Anil Singh told the Court that the Centre has capped prices of 2-ply, 3-ply surgical masks and hand sanitizers.
Whereas GP Kantharia informed the bench that the State through the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration had already written to the Centre on the issue of capping price of N-95 masks. Thus, the Court asked ASG Singh to take instructions from the Union regarding the same and inform accordingly by May 22, 2020.
The PIL states that the petitioners wanted to acquire PPE Kits and N-95 masks to be distributed amongst the frontline workers in Mumbai to help them during the ongoing crisis. However, during their endeavour to acquire these PPE kits and N95 masks for frontline workers the petitioners were shocked to witness rampant black marketeering and profiteering in N95 masks and the abject failure of the State machinery to implement the order dated March 13, 2020 passed under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.
According to the PIL, 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). When the petitioner's 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. Meanwhile, 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.
The petitioners eventually found that not only were the said masks freely available at a marked up price in the black market, but that the prices at which the petitioners were sold the N95 masks i.e. Rs.40 + GST and Rs.60 + GST were also considerably higher than the price at which Venus had sold the same N95 masks to Haffkine Bio Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited. Around 92,500 masks were sold at just Rs.17.33 per mask.