Why Modi should scrap Essential Commodities Act, not invoke it to control food prices

Perhaps it is not surprising that the Narendra Modi government has brought onions and potatoes under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. After all, a committee of chief ministers that he headed on the issue of food prices had recommended that offences under the Act should be made non-bailable and cases should be tried by special courts.

That a committee which rooted for liberalisation of agricultural markets and reform of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Acts should want an outdated piece of legislation strengthened is a bit of an anachronism, but the Indian political economy is full of such contradictions.

Yesterday's move has come on the back of steady and rapid rise in the prices of these two items, throwing already stressed household budgets out of kilter. There have been reports of hoarding, which is what prompted the decision. But is this the right way of going about it?

The Essential Commodities Act has its origin in a pre-Independence wartime measure - the Defence of India Rules of 1939. These were promulgated to address the problem of wartime shortages and consequent hoarding. Section 3 of the Essential Commodities Act gives the central government powers to control the production, supply and distribution of specified essential commodities listed in it. The list is drawn up after joint consultation between the centre and the states, and the latter impose stockholding limits on the listed commodities (these vary as conditions and food habits in states differ widely).

The intention may be noble - after all one cannot deny that hoarding and creation of artificial shortages do happen. The retail price of onions in Delhi has been double of what it is in the Azadpur mandi. Ahead of the Delhi assembly elections last year, tomatoes started disappearing from the market and prices headed north. Charges of hoarding were scoffed at, especially since tomatoes have a lesser shelf life than onions and potatoes, till the market was suddenly flooded with stocks and prices crashed the day after voting.

But invoking the Essential Commodities Act is problematic. Stockholding limits do not distinguish between food processing industries and food retail chains, which need to hold large stocks for their operations. Food processing industries especially need to keep stocks for a few months at a time so that fluctuating prices don't throw their economics out of gear. But under the Essential Commodities Act, these can become liable at least for harassment. These are corporate entities with large, earmarked storage facilities which can be easily identified. So it is easy for inspectors to go after them.

On the other hand, identifying the actual hoarders is not at all easy. These may not be small traders but their operations are not corporatized and they have many avenues to spirit away and hoard supplies. The conviction rate under the Act is also abysmally low. So the hoarders go scot free and genuine players in the food economy are harassed.

The Act is not in tune with present times. It made sense at a time when the transport infrastructure across the country was poor and markets not integrated. So a production shock in one part of the country could lead to hoarding and black marketing. That's not the case any more. Shortages in one part of the country can be countered if there is ample supply somewhere else.

So does that mean no steps should be taken against hoarding? Certainly not. The state has to step in where there is a clear case of market distortion. There is another legislation called the Prevention of Black-marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities (PBMSEC) Act, 1980 which the centre and states can invoke to check hoarders.

There is, however, a problem with this law - it is linked to the Essential Commodities Act. So action under the PBMSEC Act can only be taken against offences punishable under the Essential Commodities Act. The list of items that the PBMSEC can be invoked for comes from the Essential Commodities Act. And it is the stockholding limits under the Essential Commodities Act that defines hoarding. It is this anomaly that needs to be addressed, not pushing more and more items under the Act whenever there is a price shock.

The Essential Commodities Act is out of tune with current realities and needs to be either scrapped or drastically overhauled to deal with crisis situations like supplies getting disrupted due to war, natural calamities and breakdown of law and order. But if even an otherwise natural reformist like Modi wants the Act to be retained and strengthened, looks like the country is going to have to live with an ineffective, harassment-prone law. And ordinary people will continue to suffer.

Seetha is a senior journalist and author

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2014 12:45:19 IST