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COVID-19, Lockdown & Supply of ‘Essential Goods’

COVID-19, spreading at an alarming pace across the world, was confirmed and characterised as a ‘pandemic’ by the World Health Organisation, during the second week of March. The World Health Organisation called upon the governments of countries across the world to take steps to strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimising economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights. In line with preventive measures undertaken by countries across the world, the Government of India also, under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, passed an order on March 24, 2020, for taking effective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in India. The result, a nationwide lockdown for a period of 21 (twenty one) days, ending, for now, on April 14, 2020. In addition to issuing the Order, the Government also issued a set of Guidelines that are required to be followed by all States and Union Territories, during this 21 (twenty one) day period. 

One of the foremost and probably the most important question that arose was in relation to the manufacture and supply of essential commodities, and whether the same was permitted, during this period of lockdown. It is interesting to note that the term ‘Essential Commodities’, has always been understood as being specified as such, in the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. The essential commodities, as specified, are presently 7 (seven) in number, and has recently been amended to include masks and other sanitisers for a limited period of time. The primary concern of people at large was the availability of all commodities that are considered as being ‘essential’ for living through this period of lockdown. 

The Government, in the first set of Guidelines issued, stated that while all commercial and private establishments are required to be closed, certain shops, including ration shops, and shops dealing with food, groceries, fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, animal fodder, and dairy and milk booths, as well as those dealing with seeds, pesticides and fertilisers, could remain open and operate. In addition, to facilitate the aforesaid, the Government also encouraged home delivery of the products, and permitted e-commerce entities to operate to supply ‘essential goods’, including food. Cold Storage and warehousing facilities in addition to the aforesaid were also permitted. 

In order to maintain the continued availability of ‘essential goods’ and food on shelves, the Government permitted industrial establishments, involved in the manufacture of essential commodities/ goods, to continue with their operations and certain other industries to also operate with the permission of the concerned State Government. 

The term essential commodities and essential goods were being used in the Guidelines interchangeably, which led to confusion, both with the industry manufacturing the goods, and the enforcement authorities who have been given the task to enforce the Guidelines. The Government, therefore, to provide clarity on essential commodities/ goods, issued, both addendums and standard operating procedures which provided a certain amount of clarity on what essential commodities/ goods could be, and the processes required to be maintained for the supply of such commodities/ goods. It appeared by this time that the Government’s intention was not to permit the supply of only those ‘essential commodities’, as defined in the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, but essential goods in the general understanding of the term, as known through the evolving preferences of consumers. Further, those businesses which were related to the supply of these essential goods, such as the transporters of the goods, manufacturers of packaging material for food items, etc., were also permitted to operate. The conditions of the Government are, however, that all precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should be adopted, including social distancing. 

Accordingly, it now appears that all goods considered ‘essential’, in the general understanding of the term, are permitted to be manufactured and sold in the manner that were being sold, prior to the implementation of the lockdown. The question that, however, remains is, what would be considered to be essential, as basic necessities, being relative in nature, would obviously differ from person to person. In answering this question, we have found that the Government is demonstrating a certain level of flexibility in categorising products as being ‘essential’, keeping in mind COVID-19, and clarity could be obtained by making the proper representations to them. The aforesaid approach could be observed between the first set of Guidelines issued by the Government, which merely stated that shops dealing with groceries could remain open and operate, and the subsequent addendum issued on March 29, 2020, which stated that groceries included all kinds of hygiene products such as soaps, body washes, detergents, etc., and battery cells, chargers, etc.