The Union government appears to be dithering on the issue of manufacturers charging exorbitant rates for N95 masks in India. While the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA), a government regulatory agency that controls the prices of pharmaceutical drugs in the country, says it has asked manufacturers to reduce the rates by 47 per cent, in the same breath it says it "hopes" that its appeal would be heard and the high rates would be lowered.
This tortuous stand of the government comes on an affidavit it has filed before the Bombay High Court in response to a petition highlighting the exorbitant rates charged by manufacturers for N95 masks.
The NPPA’s affidavit was filed before a bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Kamalkishor Tated, which is dealing with a petition filed by Sucheta Dalal and Anjali Damnia.
In its affidavit filed through Joint Director Nihal Pedric, the NPPA has cited a recent meeting it held with the representatives from the ministries of textiles and health and family welfare and other stakeholders, who advised the government not to cap the prices of N95 masks at present, since the world is already facing a shortage of these high quality masks.
"I say that during the meeting, all participants were of the view that this is not the appropriate time to go for price capping. As on date, there is limited number of manufacturers/importers of N-95 masks in the country and the government is striving to encourage up scaling of production of the same in the larger public interest," the affidavit contends.
"At present there is a mismatch in demand and supply of the N-95 masks and government is taking all the possible measures to ensure its supplies in the country to protect interest of public at large in this pandemic. Looking into the limited capacity available in the country for the production of N-95 masks, any price capping at this stage may disincentivise domestic manufacturing which may impact the availability of N-95 masks to meet the challenge of COVID-19," the government claimed.
The NPPA further claimed that the demand of N95 masks are higher globally and price capping for the same at this stage may also be proved deterrence for the imports and this may lead to diversion of N-95 masks supplies to other countries.
"Therefore, the participants felt that it would be premature at this stage to go for price capping and the government at present must ensure uninterrupted supply of masks and PPE kits in adequate quantities to Health Care workers," the affidavit reads.
Further, the NPPA claimed that the stakeholders suggested it to issue an
advisory to the manufacturers and importers of N95 masks directing them to sell the masks at a reasonable price and any violation of the same would invite action under Essential Commodities Act, 1955.
"After issuing such an advisory, major manufacturers and importers of N-95 masks have reduced their prices significantly up to 47 per cent," the government claimed, adding, "It is expected that other manufacturers and importers will follow the advice of the government and roll down the prices in the larger public interest."
According to the government, it is a major purchaser of N-95 masks directly from the manufacturers. "It is apprised that a total number of 2.44 crore N-95 masks has been ordered till June 2020, against which 1.06 Crore procured till May 27 and till May 28, we have distributed nearly 115.58 lakh masks," the affidavit claims.
The affidavit further goes on to state that the demand of N95 masks have globally increased due to Covid-19 pandemic.
"Countries worldwide are trying to procure the N95 mask as much as possible for use of its health care workers. Due to shortage of N95 masks globally, our government has prohibited export of these masks to increase availability of the same in the country. We are procuring largest share of these masks directly from the manufacturers and importers at bulk rates," the affidavit adds