The government on Monday claimed it will inoculate the “entire eligible population” by 2021-end, only to be barraged with questions from the Supreme Court about the efficacy of its policy, which allows the Centre to procure just 50% of the vaccines while leaving the States to buy their own.
The court also challenged the differential vaccine pricing policy, saying “there needs to be one price for vaccines across the nation”.
A three-judge Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud also asked the government to “please wake up and smell the coffee” about the farfetchedness of an illiterate villager from rural India crossing the “digital divide” to register for COVID-19 vaccination on the COWIN portal where slots disappear in the blink of an eye. Justice Chandrachud said the government should be aware of the ground realities in ‘Digital India’. Vaccination policy today is entirely exclusionary of the rural areas, the court said.
One of the judges on the Bench, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat said he had received distress calls from across the country from people unable to register on COWIN. The court asked why the marginalised section should not be treated on par with people having co-morbities for early vaccination.
The virtual hearing, however, began on a positive note with Solicitor General Tushar Mehta assuring that “on vaccination, as per our estimate, from the domestic market and Sputnik V, we expect the entire eligible population to get vaccinated by the end of this year”.
Mr. Mehta said the government was in talks with other manufacturers like Pfizer. If the discussions succeed, the government would be able to advance its deadline for completing the immunisation drive. The Solicitor General said he would file an affidavit with the latest updates.
Queries dual pricing
But the court highlighted the difference in vaccine prices between the Centre and the States. When the Centre can purchase vaccine in bulk for ₹150 per dose, the States have to pay ₹300 to ₹600. Justice L. Nageswara Rao, on the Bench, asked why even the two vaccines — Covaxin and Covishield — were differentially priced.
“What is the rationale for this dual pricing policy? Why is the Centre procuring at a lower price and what has the Centre fixed its vaccine purchase at 50% and left the States to their own devices?” Justice Bhat asked.
Justice Chandrachud said some States and municipal corporations had gone ahead and floated their own “global tenders” to buy vaccines.
“We want to know if the policy of the country is that all States are on their own to supply tenders,” Justice Chandrachud asked the Centre.
“Article 1 of the Constitution says Bharat is a Union of States. When the Constitution says that, we will follow the federal rule. Then the Government of India has to wholly procure the vaccines and distribute them. Here, individual States are left in a lurch…” Justice Chandrachud said.
Mr. Mehta urged the court to exercise restraint. “The world is in a crisis. Vaccine manufacturers are few. Any indication that the Supreme Court is examining the price structure would hamper…” he said.
Justice Bhat said the court was only looking into the rationale of the pricing and did not intend to hamper any negotiations.
The court referred to how private entities were pricing vaccine jabs very high. “Are you saying that everyone between 18 and 44 years of age can afford vaccines… not at all,” the court addressed the government.
Amicus curiae, senior advocate Meenaskshi Arora, said, “Private hospitals price an injection at ₹1,000. For a family of four, it will come up to ₹4,000. This is the price they have to pay for getting vaccinated immediately. It is a huge expense… This is when Central governments in other countries vaccinate their people free of charge”.
Justice Bhat said vaccine prices would go further high in case of shortage. “Even other drugs like Remdesivir, the prices had hit the roof,” the judge said.