The Centre has asked the states and the union territories to invoke a stringent law to punish those indulging in hoarding and black marketing of essential commodities, saying such acts can't be ruled out due to the loss of production and labour crisis in the wake of the nationwide lockdown.
In a communication to chief secretaries of all states and union territories, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), under the Disaster Management Act, has allowed manufacture or production, transport and other related supply-chain activities in respect of essential goods like foodstuff, medicines and medical equipment during the 21-day lockdown.
However, there are reports of loss of production due to various factors, especially because of the reduction in labour supply.
"In this situation, the possibility of inventory building/hoarding and black marketing, profiteering, and speculative trading, and the resulting price rise of essential goods cannot be ruled out," he said.
Mr Bhalla asked the state governments and the UT administrations to take urgent steps to ensure availability of these essential goods, by invoking provisions of the Essential Commodities (EC) Act, 1955.
These measures include fixing of stock limits, capping of prices, enhancing production, inspection of accounts of dealers and other such actions, he said.
"Offences under EC Act are criminal offences and may result in imprisonment of 7 years or fine or both."
"State/Union Territory Governments may also consider detention of offenders under the Prevention of Black-marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act, 1980," Mr Bhalla said.
The Home Secretary said the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, is authorising the states and the union territories to notify orders under the EC Act, 1955 by relaxing the requirement or prior concurrence of the central government up to June 30, 2020.
"I would urge you to personally take urgent steps to ensure availability of these commodities at fair prices for public at large," he said.
The country-wide lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 in a bid to combat the coronavirus threat.