Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government spent months planning what it described as the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccine rollout. At the very first meeting of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 in 2020, it announced that the Centre was taking full control and advised states “not to chart separate pathways of procurement”.
Then, in April 2021, faced with a huge spike in cases, vaccine shortages being reported from around the country and many questions about its mismanagement of the pandemic, the Centre decided to junk its plans. It introduced a confusing new strategy that no other major nation is following: it put the onus of vaccinating the 600 million Indians in the 18-44 band entirely on the states and private hospitals.
The results of this “liberalised and accelerated” vaccine strategy, announced on April 19 that which went into effect on May 1, have not been encouraging. Vaccination rates have fallen steadily nearly every week since early April, according to the government’s own CoWin dashboard.
On Thursday, faced with many questions about the sluggish pace of vaccinations, NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank, put out a press release that it titled :Myths & Facts on India’s Vaccination Process”.
The release featured some clear lies (which it later had to correct), such as the claim that no country in the world is giving vaccines to children, and some questionable arguments, such as a position against compulsory licensing to override patent laws, which is seemingly at odds with what the government has argued for internationally.
States vs Centre
But the most churlish portion of the release appears to be the argument about states. Here is the section, in full:
Myth 5: Centre has abdicated its responsibility to the states
“Fact: The Central Government is doing all the heavy-lifting, from funding vaccine manufacturers to giving them quick approvals to ramping up production to bringing foreign vaccines to India. The vaccine procured by the Centre is supplied wholly to the states for free administration to people. All this is very much in the knowledge of the states.
GoI has merely enabled states to try procuring vaccines on their own, on their explicit requests. The states very well knew the production capacity in the country and what the difficulties are in procuring vaccines directly from abroad. In fact, GoI ran the entire vaccine program from January to April & it was quite well-administrated compared to the situation in May.
But states, who had not even achieved good coverage of healthcare workers and frontline workers in 3 months wanted to open up the process of vaccination and wanted more decentralisation. Health is a state subject & the liberalised vaccine policy was a result of the incessant requests being made by the states to give states more power.
The fact that global tenders have not given any results only reaffirm what we have been telling the states from day one: that vaccines are in short supply in the world and it is not easy to procure them at short notice.”
The release makes it seem as if the Centre is doing Indians a favour by carrying out the “heavy lifting” on vaccines and providing them for free – even though this model has been adopted by most countries in the world. But also, this is exactly what the government promised it would do back in 2020 when it asked states not to interfere.
What follows is even more questionable.
The release claims that states – it doesn’t specify whether it is talking about some or all – had done a bad job of vaccinating healthcare workers and frontline workers in the first three months of the programme. It claimed that it knew from day one that global tenders would not achieve much.
Yet it says that it changed its vaccine plan in April because of “incessant requests being made by the states to give states more power”.
Is the government saying that it chose a bad vaccination policy – one that would take up the time and resources of states in putting together global tenders, and which it knew would not work – simply because of political pressure?
This seems like the sort of milquetoast “coalition dharma” justification given by the Congress party for bad decisions in the United Progressive Alliance years. Except in this case, there aren’t even coalition partners to blame.
While it is true that many states were asking for vaccines to be opened up to Indians of all ages, the only one demanding a greater say for the states in procuring vaccines was Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, whose opinions the Bharatiya Janata party regularly trashes and who isn’t running a government.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is also on record asking for state procurement, but her demand was for the Centre to arrange for vaccines and the state to be able to pay for them with its own funds. Most other demands were, however, for flexibility in distribution, not procurement.
Is the Modi government claiming that it is so weak currently that it caved in to unreasonable demands from Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee despite knowing that the policy would end in failure?
In its press release about the new strategy in April, it gave no indication that some sudden spirit of federalism or compromise with these leaders lay behind the new approach. Instead, NITI Aayog made it seem as if the changes had been part of the plan all along. “Now, as capabilities and processes have stabilised, the public as well as private sector has the experience and confidence to rapidly scale up,” it said. Is the Centre now going back on these claims?
In fact, the NITI Aayog’s statement seems to make it even clearer that the Centre’s original vaccination plan had gone horribly wrong. The plan presumed that there would not be a second wave, that India could rely entirely on local manufacturers and that exporting millions of vaccines would not become a political liability.
The release confirms the impression of many that the aim of the new policy was to shift blame for the Centre’s mismanagement and lack of transparency onto the states. This way, Modi would not have to take responsibility for the severe shortages that were likely to remain until the second half of the year.
It has been evident that the Modi government’s misplaced triumphalism about having defeated Covid-19 played a huge role in the mismanagement that led to India’s brutal, tragic second wave. The NITI Aayog release shows that even after the second wave erupted, the government’s policy decisions have focused on preserving Modi’s image and shifting blame to the states, rather than taking responsibility and corrective action.