NEW DELHI :
The Supreme Court on Monday asked the Centre to “smell the coffee” and modify its covid vaccine policy that requires states to pay more for the jabs. The court also asked the government to ensure that the poor and those living in rural areas are not excluded from the vaccination drive because of their inability to access the Internet.

Resuming its hearing of the suo motu case on the handling of the second covid wave, the top court said the Union government’s policy lacked “vision” and did not take into account crucial aspects to tackle the issues.

The bench, led by justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud, remarked that “policymakers must have their ears to the ground” and flagged several concerns, including why states had to pay more than the Centre for vaccines and how the Centre planned to ensure people in rural areas could get the vaccine when the registration on the CoWIN digital platform was mandatory.

Appearing for the Centre, solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the court that the government expected to vaccinate the entire population by the end of this year and justified the dual pricing. About mandatory registration on CoWIN, Mehta said it was done in view of limited health infrastructure and also to avoid overcrowding.

But the bench, which included justices L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat, was unimpressed with Mehta’s submissions and regretted that the Centre did not seem to have paid heed to suggestions mooted by the court in its 30 April order on vaccination pricing and rural healthcare.

“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 it was not enough for the Centre to claim it knew what was best for the people and that it must also remember that ‘our arms are strong enough to come down” if there was a continued resistance to consider changes in the larger interest of the nation.

“Let there be some degree of flexibility. It cannot be that we have laid down a policy, and it cannot be changed. The ability to recognize that we have gone wrong is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Our idea is to initiate dialogue so that we can strengthen the arms of the nation,” said the bench, giving the government two weeks to submit a detailed response.

The court emphasized 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,” it told Mehta.

The bench added that the criteria of those above 45 years being the vulnerable class for covid had witnessed a change, with many younger people losing their lives due to the virus in the second wave.

“Can there be a justification for the Centre to now say we will only take care of those who are above 45? We are aware we don’t have time to enter the realm of policymaking, but your policy has to be logical and reasonable,” said the bench, asking Mehta to get unequivocal instruction on the next date if the Centre was ready to act as a national body for procurement of vaccines for all states.

The court asked Mehta if it was realistically possible for all those in rural areas and the marginalized to register themselves on CoWIN platform. “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 Rajasthan get himself registered on CoWIN? 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 Mehta said walk-in registrations have begun in some circumstances, the bench pointed out that there is no policy on record regarding this.

The bench had said that it will issue short order on the proceedings, but the order was not released on Monday.

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