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Covid-19: How ‘hands-on’ Gujarat got around dry law

Rutam Vora Ahmedabad | Updated on September 06, 2020 Published on September 04, 2020

The three available mass weapons to fight Covid-19 were mask, hand sanitizers and social distancing   -  Ranjeet Kumar

By letting sanitizer companies use ‘denatured’ ethyl alcohol, State avoids possible shortage

In March 2020, when fear-stricken people were stocking up sanitizers and other protective gears to guard themselves against Covid-19, the Gujarat government was rushing against time to ensure adequate supplies of alcohol for hand sanitizer makers.

Besides the market factors, the biggest hurdle for the “dry state” was its ‘Gujarat Prohibition Act, 1949’, which restricted the use of alcohol for only license holders.

 

Before Covid-19, Gujarat had about 10 licensed hand sanitizer makers, each with a capacity of around 10,000 litres per day. Following the overnight spurt in demand for hand sanitizers after Covid-19, companies ran out of stock and there was a sudden rush for raw materials, that is, iso-propyl alcohol (IPA) — a medical grade alcohol permitted for licenced pharma players under the law. Prices of IPA were jacked up the prices by over four times from ₹80-340 a litre.

Unviable production

This came at a time when the Centre was pushing States to ramp up sanitizer manufacturing. “Earlier in March, the industry came to us expressing their inability to supply hand sanitizers as IPA wasn't easily available and was exorbitantly costly. Also, a retail price cap at ₹50 per 100 ml made it unviable to sell. There was no option but to find a way out,” Hemant Koshia, Commissioner, Food & Drugs Control Administration (FDCA) - Gujarat told BusinessLine.

An alternative was available in the form of denatured alcohol (ordinary ethyl alcohol) — not fit for human consumption but equally effective as IPA. Available in plenty with the distilleries and sugar mills as a by-product of sugar, it cost ₹60 per litre.

Ethyl alcohol — an option

But using it for sanitizers had to be permitted by the State’s watchdog -- the Prohibition & Excise Department -- which wasn't easy to convince as alcohol being sensitive matter and under strict watch.

The three available mass weapons for fight against Covid-19 were mask, hand sanitizers and social distancing. Therefore, the authorities prioritised hassle-free sanitizers production using ethyl alcohol to prevent any shortages.

“The same day by evening, we chalked out a proposal seeking exemption of ethyl alcohol from Gujarat Prohibition Act for companies which have existing licences to make sanitizers under the D&C Act. The health department cleared the proposal, but since the prohibition falls under the home department, the Home Secretary expressed concerns of a possible misuse of the exemptions. But we were using denatured alcohol which isn't suitable for consumption. The file started moving further to Chief Secretary and then to the levels of Deputy Chief Minister and Chief Minister and got cleared as a policy decision,” Koshia said narrating the war-room-like situation.

“By noon next day, we had the clearance from top and immediately a notification was issued exempting ethanol from prohibition for sanitizer makers. It involved plenty of complexities but being a Dry State, the fight against Covid-19 shouldn't get compromised,” Koshia stated. Today, there are over 650 sanitizer makers in the State with combined capacity of two crore litres per day — one of the highest in the country.

Industry cheers

The industry has benefited with reduced costs, faster movement of materials and wider market access. Vadodara-based Vasu Healthcare launched its sanitizer product in June. “Despite stiff competition and late entry, we are able to get a sales volume of about one lakh bottles (100 ml) a month. All due to relaxed norms, and wide market access,” Vikram Trivedi, GM - R&D, Vasu Healthcare said. The ethyl alcohol was made available to those who required it at most competitive rates starting as low as ₹53/litre to ₹65-70/litre.

“Earlier, it wasn't so easy to make a sanitizer in Gujarat using ethyl alcohol but now it is. We got approval for our alcohol supplies and product licence within a day,” informed Trivedi.

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Published on September 04, 2020
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