Masks and hand sanitisers have been declared as essential commodities following their shortage in the wake of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The Centre notified an order under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 to declare 2 ply and 3 ply surgical masks, N95 masks and hand sanitisers as Essential Commodities till June 2020.

An advisory has also been issued by the Govt. of India under the Legal Metrology Act, so that these masks and hand sanitisers are not sold above the Maximum Retail Price (MRP).

What are Essential Commodities?

Essential Commodities are defined as “Goods considered essential to maintain a minimum acceptable standard of living”. The Essential Commodities Act, 1955,. gives an all inclusive definition which “means and includes any commodity in the list provided in the schedule to Section 2(a).

What happens when a commodity is enlisted as an Essential Commodity?

When a commodity is enlisted as an Essential Commodity then that commodity or item cannot be sold above the Maximum Retail Price (MRP). In other words, the listing gives the consumers a protection against irrational spikes in prices of those commodities in case of an emergency outbreak. Without this enlisting, the common man would be at the mercy of opportunistic traders and shopkeepers. It empowers the government to control prices directly too.

What are the key features of Essential Commodities Act?

The Essential Commodities Act is an act which was established to ensure the delivery of certain commodities or products, the supply of which if obstructed owing to hoarding or blackmarketing would affect the normal life of the people. This includes foodstuff, drugs, fuel (petroleum products) etc.

The list of items under the Act includes drugs, fertilisers, pulses and edible oils, and petroleum and petroleum products. The Centre can include new commodities as and when the need arises, and take them off the list once the situation improves.

COVERAGE: This 1955 Act extends to whole of India.


DEFINITION: The Act contains specific definition for the following: 

  • “Collector” includes an Additional Collector and such other officer, not below the rank of Sub-Divisional Officer.
  • “Food-crops” include crops of sugarcane. 
  • “Sugar” means- Any form of sugar containing more than 90% of sucrose, including sugar candy; Khandsari sugar or bura sugar or crushed sugar or any sugar in crystalline or powdered form; or Sugar in process in vacuum pan sugar factory or raw sugar produced therein.

WORKING: If the Centre finds that a certain commodity is in short supply and its price is spiking, it can notify stock-holding limits on it for a specified period. The States act on this notification to specify limits and take steps to ensure that these are adhered to. Anybody trading or dealing in the commodity, be it wholesalers, retailers or even importers are prevented from stockpiling it beyond a certain quantity.

INTERFERENCE OF STATE: A State can, however, choose not to impose any restrictions. But once it does, traders have to immediately sell into the market any stocks held beyond the mandated quantity. This improves supplies and brings down prices. As not all shopkeepers and traders comply, State agencies conduct raids to get everyone to toe the line and the errant are punished. The excess stocks are auctioned or sold through fair price shops. 

What are the various commodities listed under the Act so far?

Essential Commodities in India have been declared in section 2 of Essential Commodities Act, 1955. The essential commodities in India are as follows:

  • Cattle fodder, including oilcakes and other concentrates. 
  • Coal, including coke and other derivatives. 
  • Components parts and accessories of automobiles. 
  • Cotton and woollen textiles. 
  • Foodstuffs, including edible oilseeds and oils. 
  • Iron and Steel, including manufactured products of Iron & Steel.
  • Paper, including newsprint, paperboard and strawboard. 
  • Petroleum and Petroleum products. 
  • Raw Cotton, either ginned or unginned and cotton seed. 
  • Raw Jute. 

The following commodities are also declared as essential through notifications: 

  • Jute textiles. 
  • Fertilizer, whether inorganic, organic or mixed. 
  • Yarn made wholly from cotton. 
  • Seeds of food crops and seeds of fruits and vegetables.
  • Seeds of cattle fodder  
  • Jute seeds
  • Bottled Water (By Kerala Government in Feb 2020)
  • Masks and Sanitisers (Till June 2020 following outbreak of COVID-19)

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