Questioning the rationale behind the BJP led Central Government’s vaccination policies, the Supreme Court on Monday said, “We are asking you to please wake up and smell the coffee and see what’s happening across the country.”
It questioned the need and rationale behind the dual pricing, the process of procurement of vaccines, and the mandatory COWIN registration for the vaccination of those below the age of 45.
On the issue of the digital divide that is hampering the process of COWIN registration, the Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta referred to an affidavit filed by the Central Government in the Court and said that people need not do the online registration on their own rather they can take the help Common Service Centers or relatives and friends and do bulk registration.
With the Central Government shifting the responsibility to procure vaccines on the State Governments unilaterally, the State heads are struggling to get a fair price under the new Liberalized Pricing.
The impracticality of these measures was pointed out by Justice DY Chandrachud who was heading a bench that comprised Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, in a suo motu hearing on issues relating to COVID-19 management and said:
“Even in the villages, they have to get registered at a common centre. Is this practical? Policy makers must keep an ear to the ground.” and added “How do you answer the question about migrant labourers who have to go from one State to another?”.
Mehta said that walk-in vaccination has not been allowed for the below 45 age group so as to avoid crowding at the centers and because of the lack of human and infrastructural resources. For the 45 above group, walk-in vaccine registrations are have started because their number is less and there is therefore very less risk of over-crowding, he added.
Justice Chandrachud said that since “digital literacy in India is still far from perfect”, the Center should keep its policies “flexible” and its “ears to the ground” so as to make necessary changes in the policy measures to make the vaccination drive efficient. The Bench also emphasized that instead of filling sharing points of its vaccination as affidavits, the Central government should consider sharing the policy document with the Court.
Court Questions the Rationale for Dual Pricing Policy
Several states and UT governments including Kerala, Delhi, and Maharashtra have been flagging the issue of vaccine shortage and the subsequent closure of vaccination centers in the states for weeks now. With the Central Government shifting the responsibility to procure vaccines for those below the age of 45 on the State Governments unilaterally, the State heads are struggling to get a fair price for the stock under the new Liberalized Pricing and are forced to compete against each other in the vaccine market.
“What is the rationale for the dual pricing policy?” Justice Bhat asked. “You are asking the States to pick up and compete with each other.”
Justice Chandrachud asked Mehta if the Central Government will act like a”national agency” that procures the vaccines in bulk and then distributes them to the states or the states are left to fend for themselves? Furthermore, he referred to Article 1 of the Constitution which says that Bharat is a Union of States reflecting a federal rule meaning that “Then Government of India has to procure the vaccines and distribute them.”
The Bench said that a few states have the financial capacity to procure vaccines but questioned how the same will have in states like Uttar Pradesh and if the Center will intervene to negotiate. It also sought information if any government research is being conducted in rural areas with respect to the third wave of the pandemic.
Justice Chandrachud said the court “will see that we don’t enter the area of policy”, and that the purpose of the questions is to create a dialogue so that the issues of the marginalized sections of the society are critically examined.
Two weeks of time has been given to the Center to file an additional affidavit addressing the concerns raised by the Bench.