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Centre's vaccine policy: If SC is forced to intervene, it's a measure of the failure of the executive to set its own house in order

Belligerence is not a virtue while dealing with the Supreme Court, whatever be the proximate cause. The Central government should have remembered this while preparing its affidavit on its vaccine policy, presented before the court on Monday. While asserting the appropriateness of its policy, the Centre virtually warned the court that “any overzealous, though well-meaning, judicial intervention may lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences”.

Had that been the case, the court would not have suo motu intervened in the implementation of the policy by asking the government to have a rethink on the matter. What was warranted was a review of the policy to make appropriate changes in it so that the vaccine policy remained credible, justifiable and equitable. The fact of the matter is that even after the review, there is no change, substantial or peripheral. In fact, it is just a reiteration that serves little purpose.

The Centre’s vaccine policy, under which it procured vaccines at Rs 150 per dose from two laboratories in India, for distribution free of cost to all the people, with health and other frontline workers and senior citizens getting priority, was fine and nobody challenged it. The companies concerned have gone on record to claim that they were making a profit, though not large, at the price at which they were supplying in bulk to the Centre. The problem arose when the companies, which enjoy monopoly rights, announced a differential pricing policy. In effect, the states must pay Rs 400 and private hospitals Rs 1,200 per dose for Bharat Biotech-produced Covaxin. Serum Institute’s Covishield would cost Rs 300 per dose for states and Rs 600 per dose for private hospitals. There is no logic whatsoever in this pricing system except that it allows the manufacturers considerable scope for profiteering at the cost of public health.

Small wonder that the apex court saw the policy undermining Article 14 of the Constitution that prescribes equality before law and Article 21 that underlines protection of life and personal liberty. True, the executive must have at all times enough elbow room to formulate and implement various policies and it should not be hamstrung by unnecessary judicial intervention. In this case, what is the rationale for pricing differently? Why should the Centre get 50 per cent of the whole production at Rs 150 per dose when the states and private hospitals have to buy the rest 50 per cent at substantially higher prices? The Union Territories, including the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, which are directly administered by the Centre, have a relatively small population. The states, without any exception, are committed to provide free vaccines to their population. This leaves the Centre with little burden, unless it has a larger plan to provide vaccines to the global community and gain diplomatic advantage.

There is a point, though limited, in permitting private hospitals to provide the vaccine to its clients at a higher price, as they might provide better services like air-conditioned comfort in the vaccination room and might follow better Covid-19 protocols. The Centre seems to be unwilling to provide free vaccines to those below 45 who became eligible for it from May 1. Casualty figures suggest that Covid-19 does not discriminate between the young and the old, which means, there is a strong case for vaccinating every young person in the country. It cannot be presumed that they are richer and can be allowed to fend for themselves.

To be effective, the vaccination programme must cover at least 60-70 per cent of the population. If this figure has to be achieved in the foreseeable future, there is an urgent need to universalise the vaccine programme. That is how smallpox and polio, which were no less scourges than coronavirus, were successfully fought and defeated. They were Central programmes, implemented with the close cooperation of the state governments, and there was never an occasion when vaccine prices were mentioned, let alone discussed in public. It is in the same spirit that the Central and state governments should implement the vaccine policy.

If, from time to time, the Supreme Court is forced to intervene and take action like constituting a committee to deal with the acute shortage of oxygen in the country, it is a measure of the failure of the executive to set its own house in order. Rather than arguing that the elephant it caught has two horns, the Centre should show willingness to appreciate the apex court’s anxiety and come up with a revised vaccine policy when the court hears the case on Thursday next.

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