The Supreme Court on Monday asked the central government to “smell the coffee” and modify its policy that requires states to pay more for Covid-19 vaccines, besides ensuring that the marginalised and rural population are not left out of the vaccination drive due to India’s digital divide.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for the government, said the entire eligible population of the country would be vaccinated by the year-end.
Resuming its hearing of the suo motu (on its own motion) case on handling of the second Covid-19 wave, the top court was emphatic that the Union government’s policy lacked a “vision” and it did not take into account several crucial aspects to tackle issues at present and in future.
Also read| Close to committing $1 billion to Moderna for Covid-19 booster shot: Cipla
The bench, led by justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, remarked that “policy makers must have their ears to the ground” as it flagged several areas of concern, asking why states had to pay more than the Centre for the vaccine, and how the Centre planned to ensure people in rural areas could get the vaccine when registration on the CoWIN digital platform was mandatory. Appearing for the Centre, solicitor general Tushar Mehta informed the court that the Centre expected to vaccinate the entire population of the country by the end of this year, as he also sought to justify the dual pricing of vaccines. About mandatory registration on CoWin, the SG said it was done in view of limited health infrastructure and to avoid overcrowding at centres.
But the bench, which included justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, remained unimpressed with the submissions and regretted that the Centre did not seem to have paid heed to suggestions mooted by the court in its April 30 order on vaccine pricing and rural health care.
“You smell the coffee and see what’s happening across the country and change your policies. It cannot be a day-to-day ad hoc response to as and when problems occur. Absent guidelines and absent policy, you will have ad hoc decisions. There has to be a clear-cut policy of decision making and a vision for the present and for the future, which is perhaps lacking today. We will like your policy to be amended,” it said. Asking the government to show a “little bit of flexibility”, the court said that it was not enough for the Centre to claim only it knew what was best for the people and that they must also remember that “our arms are strong enough to come down” if there was continued resistance to consider changes. “…Ability to recognise that we have gone wrong is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Our idea is to initiate a dialogue so that we can strengthen the arms of the nation,” said the bench, giving the government two weeks to come back with a detailed response. It emphasised that the Union government ought to negotiate globally and procure vaccines for the entire country “in a national crisis” rather than leaving states in the lurch.
“What is the rationale behind this dual pricing policy? Centre procures at a certain price but does not want to tell the manufacturers at what price they should give it to states. If the Centre can justify its lower pricing due to block supply, why cannot it procure the vaccines for the states under the same rationale? Ultimately, you have to ensure everyone gets vaccinated at the same price for all sections,” it said.
The bench added that the criterion of those aged above 45 years being the vulnerable class for Covid-19 has witnessed a change with many less than 45 losing their lives due to the virus in the second wave. “Can there be a justification for the Centre to now say that we will only take care of those who are above 45? We are aware that we don’t have time to enter the realm of policy making but your policy has to be logical and reasonable,” said the bench, asking the SG to get unequivocal instructions on the next date if the Centre was ready to act like a national body for procurement of vaccines.
It further asked Mehta if it was realistically possible for all those in rural areas and the marginalised to register themselves on the CoWIN platform.
Also read: 3 men bury Covid positive father’s body in field, probe ordered
“What about the digital divide? You can keep saying Digital India, Digital India. Digital India is alright but can a poor migrant worker from Jharkhand or from Rajasthan get himself registered on CoWIN? Is that possible? How are you answering the digital divide? How are you going to ensure migrant workers can get themselves registered and get vaccinated?” it asked. While the SG said that walk-in registrations have begun in some circumstances, the bench pointed out there is no policy on record regarding this or to show how and why the Union government decided to usher in differential pricing of vaccines for the 18-45 age group.
“You cannot say if you don’t register on CoWIN, we will not vaccinate you. Ground reality is that 70% of vaccination is only in urban areas. Vaccines are not reaching the rural areas. If there is a policy document, we want to see what is the policy in black and white. We don’t want to go by the affidavit to say it is evolving; it is dynamic, etc. We want to see what’s the rationale,” it told the SG. It added that no policy was carved in stone and that the government’s new policy had to meet the test of reasonableness and equality, apart from ensuring right to life that included right to public health.
“You have to have a policy which is clear-cut, deal with all the issues and provide guidance to states and other institutions in terms of not only present but also in terms of the future. We will also request you to produce the policy document along with the file noting on it. So that we know what prompted you to change the previous policy. The only issue that we are seeing today is that of vaccination policy. The dialogue will continue. If you change the policy, well,” it said. The bench said it will issue an order on the proceedings but it was not released Monday.