The Supreme Court on Monday slammed the Centre on the COVID-19 vaccine procurement and differential pricing for itself and the state. Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, who headed the Bench, hit out at the government for mandatory Cowin registration for the rural population and asked it to wake up and "smell the coffee" on the digital divide. The Bench comprised of Justices S Ravindra Bhat and L Nageswara Rao.
The top court said that there cannot be differential pricing of vaccine for the Centre and states. "The Central government has wide powers to fix rates under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act? Why to leave it to the vaccine manufacturers to fix different pricing?" the court said.
Under the current vaccination policy, the Centre is providing vaccine free of cost to the population above 45 years while the people below the age of 45 have to pay for the inoculation. The vaccine cost also increased this month for the state and private hospitals, while for the Centre it is Rs 150 per dose. A single dose of the Covishield vaccine costs Rs 300 to the state government and Rs 900 to the private hospitals. The Covaxin charges Rs 400 per dose to the state government and Rs 1200 per dose to the private.
"What is the basis for the Centre to say that for the 45+ age group, it will provide vaccine free of charge, but not for 18-44 age group. In the second wave, it is not only the population above 45 years that is affected. Even people below 45 years continues to suffer. If the purpose is to procure vaccines, why should the Centre confine itself for post 45, and leave states to fend for themselves in the 18-44 age group. In the 18-44 group, 59 crore is the population, but under the government formula, 50 percent of vaccines will be allocated to private hospitals but will half of 59 crore be able to afford private hospitals," the apex court said.
The top court also questioned the Centre on states being "left in the lurch" on vaccine procurement. Many states have issued global tenders for the vaccines to which the court said that the Centre needs to procure it for the entire country.
"We have different states, issuing global tenders -- Punjab has done it, Delhi also tried. Will every state's municipal corporation be left to its own devices to procure vaccines? The BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) might be able to procure as it has a budget bigger than many states and smaller states will struggle. Does the Centre view itself as responsible for procuring vaccines for every country or will states be left to themselves? Article 1(1) says that the country is a union of states. If we are a union of states, then the government of India needs to procure vaccines for the entire country." the court said.
The court slammed the Centre over the mandatory Cowin registration for the rural population, asking it about the digital divide in the country. Every individual above 18 years of age needs to register on the Cowin to be eligible for the vaccination.
"The Centre keeps saying digital India, but it needs to have ears on the ground. Agri labourers in Jharkhand are expected to register on the Cowin app. There is a clear digital divide. The Centre needs to wake up and smell the coffee, policies need to be amended," the court said citing the example of law clerks who faced difficulty while registering on the Cowin.
The Central government told the Supreme Court that the entire eligible population will be vaccinated by the end of the year. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was representing the Centre in the court, said that the government is in talks with firms like Pfizer. "If it succeeds, the timeline of completing vaccination by year-end will change. The government is positive about the outcome and we are hopeful of getting more vaccines," he said.
First Published: IST