Essential commodities are those commodities that are used in the everyday life of the people. These commodities are needed to sustain and lead a normal life. They are essential to the people whether they are rich or poor. The availability or non-availability of such products has an impact on the regular life of the people. To regulate such products, the Essential Commodities Act was introduced. The act provided various provisions dealing with such commodities.
The origins of this Act can be traced back to 1939, when the Government of India established rules for the control, production, supply, and distribution of specific commodities under the Defence of India Act of 1939 during World War II. The Act was repealed in 1946. However, it was felt that certain regulations were urgently needed in the interest of the general public to protect some essential commodities. As a result, in 1946, the Essential Supplies (Temporary Powers) Ordinance was passed, which was later replaced by the Essential Supplies (Temporary Powers) Act, 1946.
WHAT IS ESSENTIAL COMMODITIES ACT(ECA)?
Essential Commodities Act is a parliamentary act that talks about the management of supply, its distribution, as well as the production of the commodities which are termed as ‘essentials’. The obstruction of such commodities would vastly have an effect on the lives of the people; as such commodities are used in the day-to-day lives of the people and are considered essential. The government can also set a minimum support price if it deems it necessary.
The Essential Commodities Act was implemented on 1st April1955. It extends to the whole of India. The amendment to the act was made in 2020. It was passed by Lok Sabha on 15thSeptember 2020 and passed by Rajya Sabha on 22ndSeptember 2020. According to the Department of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution sources, the regulation added a new provision (1A) to Section 3 of the Essential Commodities Act 1955. The amended law creates a system for “control” of agricultural commodities such as grain, legumes, oilseeds, cooking oils, potatoes, and supplies in the event of unusual price increases, war, famine, or a terrible natural disaster. Further, the amendment intended to increase competition in agriculture and improve farmers’ income. Their goal is to liberalize the regulatory system while protecting the interests of consumers.
COMMODITIES INCLUDED IN THE ACT
Section 2 (a) of the act defines the meaning of the essential commodity and provides a list of 7 such commodities. Thecommodities include,
• Fertilizers, whether organic, inorganic as well as mixed,
• Drugs which are defined under Section 3 (b) of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940,
• Edible Oil and its seeds,
• Hank yarn, made with cotton,
• Petroleum and its products,
• Seeds of fruits and vegetables or jute.
The act does not provide any specific definition for the word‘foodstuff’. Nevertheless, the scope of the word is derived from various case laws. Some of them are given below,
1. Satpal Gupta v. The State of Haryana
In this case, it was determined that cattle and poultry foods fall under the definition of “foodstuff.” As a result, it is concluded that food is related to both humans and animals.
2. State of Bombay v. Virkumar Gulab Chand Shah
In this case, it was determined that the foodstuff includes raw materials, items used in the process, and items used in food preparation.
SCOPE OF THE ACT
The act provides certain provisions which have punishments for the people committing black marketing or hoarding. It further has the below-mentioned scope,
• The Act authorizes the state and federal governments, or an official representative, to detain those individuals or groups who are engaged in black marketing.
• The Act also gives district magistrates and the commissioner of police the authority to prosecute offenders.
• The Act does not cover the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
OBJECTIVES OF THE ACT
1. Maintaining an uninterrupted supply of essential products in the country.
2. The government (Department of Consumer Affairs, Food,and Public Distribution) tries to keep the prices of basic necessities stable. They set the maximum retail price for such goods.
3. Avoid unnecessary stocking of essential products.
4. Stop the covert or black marketing of essential products.
LANDMARK JUDGMENT UNDER THE ACT
Nathu Lal v. State of Madhya Pradesh (AIR 1966 SC 43)
This case established the meaning of the term ‘mens rea’ under the Act.
In this case, the applicant was the grain trader in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh. He was prosecuted for storing 885 Maundsand 21/4 Seers of wheat without a license for sale, for which he committed an offense under Section 7 of the Act. The applicant argued that he did not intentionally violate the provision of the law, said that he stored the goods after applying for the license and that the government authorities had fully convinced him that they would grant it to him.
It was held that the nature of the statute is to remove social evil and promote welfare but it does not exclude the element of mens rea from its ambit. The elements of mens reaexcluded from any statute only if it defeats the object to such a statute. Thus when we read the object of the Essential Commodities Act which is “to control trade in certain commodities for the interest of the general public” we cannot say that this would be defeated if the mens rea is read like an ingredient of offences committed under it. In this case, the applicant has successfully demonstrated that he was not guilty of wrongful intent or mens rea at the time the confiscated essential products were stored but, despite violating the Section 3 order, was not prosecuted for that offence.
The Essential Commodities Act of 1955 is one of the most important laws in the country for protecting the general public’s interests. The Central Government has broad powers under this Act to control the production and supply of essential commodities. The Central Government controls the price of confiscated or seized essential commodities under this Act. All of these powers are required to keep the market running.
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