If Justice D Y Chandrachud of the Supreme Court got more credit, especially in the social media, for the new vaccine policy Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled on Monday, it is not for no reason. It is his tough questioning that forced Modi to declare that the Centre would procure the Covid-19 vaccine at its own cost and supply the same to the state governments. Nobody would grudge his decision to allow private hospitals to lift 25 per cent of the vaccine stock but they can demand a service charge of not more than Rs 150 for each jab, besides the actual cost of the vaccine. In other words, 75 per cent of those above the age of 18 would get the vaccine free of cost. Generally speaking, this meets the needs of the people and addresses their concerns.
At one time, the Centre behaved as if it was the responsibility of the states to procure vaccines and inoculate the citizens. This newspaper has, for instance, been consistently arguing that the Centre should not abdicate its responsibility and treat vaccination as a Central policy. The Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Chandrachud which suo motu took up the case, described the Centre’s policy as “prima facie arbitrary and irrational”. What was more irritating for the government, the court asked it to produce all the files to show how it has been negotiating with the vaccine producers and how it spent the Rs 35,000 crore earmarked for vaccines in the Union Budget.
The Centre realised that the court was not ready to accept whatever it said and wanted to go the whole hog to arrive at the truth. The files summoned would have revealed why and how the vaccine policy allowed the two vaccine producers to charge different rates from the Centre, the state governments and private hospitals. They might also have revealed that the so-called vaccine policy reflected the thinking of one person or a few persons, rather than the collective wisdom of the Central government. Also, it could not have overlooked the public opinion which was building up against the policy, as a result of which mass vaccination had run aground.
Had the government not waited for the Supreme Court’s rap on the knuckles and announced the policy reversal earlier, it would certainly have warmed the cockles of the common man’s heart. Anyway, it is better late than never. Be that as it may, what Modi announced is not something extraordinary. It is not the first time that India has evolved a vaccine policy. No other country has as much experience as India in controlling contagious diseases. It has controlled diphtheria, smallpox and polio, to name a few, as a Central programme, implemented with the help of the health departments in the states. The private sector was not involved in these programmes, except as promoters. True, the private medical sector was in its primitive stage at that time.
Today, beds in private hospitals outnumber those in government hospitals, which is not a healthy trend. Given this dichotomy, it is perfectly fine to let the private sector procure vaccines and serve its clientele. It will also take some load off the government sector. The decision to cap the service charge at Rs 150 will disallow profiteering by the private sector. Much of the problem the Centre faced and which the Supreme Court found unacceptable stemmed from the lack of transparency in its dealings. For instance, speculations abound about how the government exported vaccines when they were in short supply in India.
There is also no clarity on the pricing of the vaccine, particularly when one of the producers said that it made a profit when it supplied the vaccine at Rs 150 per jab to the Central government. While the new policy is welcome, there is a strong case for a white paper on all the related issues. It is at present a matter of speculation whether the apex court would insist on seeing the files like how the Rs 35,000 crore, earmarked for vaccines, was spent, now that the government has fallen in line. Even if the court shows disinclination to do so, public opinion should force the government to come clean on its vaccine policy. Transparency is of the essence in democratic functioning. Opaqueness may help in the short term but it is not a substitute for transparency in the long term. One reason why the Centre cut a sorry figure in the court is because it appeared to be hiding the truth. Let transparency prevail!