CHENNAI: Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well,” said Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. Dealt with the worst of cards, Indian States have been trying their best to prevail over the pandemic for over a year now. To ensure every person in Tamil Nadu tide over this crisis, the State government had recently capped the prices of 15 medical items by declaring them as essential articles. The benefit, however, has not trickled down completely to the common man.
Nine out of 10 pharmacies (including one standalone and three outlets of a major pharmacy chain) that Express visited in the city were not selling N95 masks and PPE kits for the government-announced MRP of Rs 22 and Rs 273 a unit respectively. The owners or storekeepers said that the items were out of stock, but readily offered premium masks, priced between Rs 80 and Rs150 per unit.
One pharmacy had N95 masks at `20 per unit, but they were poorly packed. Neither did they have quality assurance marks nor details of the manufacturer displayed. Some pharmacies had no fingertip pulse oximeters in stock. Those that had them quoted a price above its fixed cap of Rs 1,500. A surgical equipment store was selling PPE kits at Rs 450 a unit.
When reminded about the price cap, the storekeeper showed a gown and said this “PPE kit” cost only Rs 150. According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, a PPE kit must contain goggles, face-shield, mask, gloves, coverall/gowns (with or without aprons), head cover, and show cover. So, what’s causing heartburn among retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers, and refraining them from following the price regulation?
‘We were not consulted’
The government capped the prices at short notice without consulting stakeholders, said Tamil Nadu Chemists and Druggists Association (Chennai chapter) organising secretary T Natarajan. “Pharmacies are unable to sell products neither at the new MRP nor the old one. Doing the former would mean loss, while the latter would violate government rules. Pharmacies are just stocking up products currently,” he said, adding that an N95 mask of decent quality would cost around Rs 50.
“We are not against the government. But, we should have been given enough time to return or exchange products with the manufacturers or finish selling those in our inventory. Within a week, we would submit an appeal, expecting the government to announce some relief,” he said.
According to sources, the government seems to have taken a cue from Kerala, Maharashtra, and other States in the country to cap prices of essential Covid-safety articles. It may also be noted that the Kerala government revised its MRP for a PPE kit from Rs 273 to Rs 328 late last month.
An official in the Food Safety and Drug Administration Department told Express that it is indeed possible to implement the government’s decision. “The Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation Limited (TNMSCL) procures N95 masks for a price lower than the new MRP. The government capped the MRPs to help people,” the official added.
In their defence, a retailer said that to get tenders from the TNMSCL, contractors always quote the lowest price, disregarding quality. The lack of uniformity in pricing despite a government cap can also be attributed to quality factor. Each of the 15 essential products are produced by several manufacturers and their prices differ based on quality.
To drive home the point, Natarajan said that all shirts are used for one purpose but prices range from Rs 200 to Rs 2,000 based on the material and other factors. “A high-quality shirt cannot be sold at Rs 200,” he added. The revised MRPs for Covid essentials were announced on June 4 under the Tamil Nadu Essential Articles Control and Requisitioning Act.
Prices set by TN govt
Hand sanitiser (200 ml) Rs 110
N95 mask Rs 22
Surgical mask (2 ply) Rs 3
Surgical mask (3 ply) Rs 4
Surgical mask (3 ply with non-woven melt-blown fabric) Rs 4.50
Non-rebreather mask Rs 80
Pulse oximeter Rs 1,500
Face shield Rs 21
PPE kit Rs 273
Disposable apron Rs 12
Oxygen mask Rs 54
Sterile gloves (pair) Rs 15
Examination gloves (pair) Rs 5.75
Surgical gown Rs 65
Flowmeter with a humidifier Rs 1,520
Selling prices in Chennai
N95 masks Rs 20-150
PPE kit Rs 150-700
Pulse oximeter Rs 600 2,500