The Supreme Court on Monday questioned the government’s coronavirus vaccination policy, seeking to know why there was a discrepancy in the supply for different age groups, why there was no uniform pricing, and the measures taken to ensure those in rural areas of the country are inoculated, Bar and Bench reported.

A bench, headed by Justice DY Chandrachud and comprising Justices S Ravindra Bhat and L Nageswara Rao, was hearing a suo motu case in connection with the supply of essential medicines, vaccines and medical oxygen to coronavirus patients in the country.

Justice Chandrachud asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta why there was a “dual policy” for procurement of vaccines. “The Centre says it gets a low price since it buys in bulk,” he said. “If this is the rationale, then why do states have to pay a higher price? There needs to be one price for vaccines across the nation. The pandemic has evolved in the last two months.”

As the fourth phase of inoculation began on May 1, the Central government announced a differential pricing for states, allowing them to buy vaccine doses on their own. Before that, the Centre was procuring and allocating vaccines to states.

In the latest roll out, however, the Centre took responsibility for sourcing only 50% of the doses for what has been categorised as the vulnerable population – those above 45 years, healthcare and frontline workers. This essentially means that vaccinations for all those below 45 years will have to be paid for by the states or by the citizens themselves. The Centre will not pay.

The new “liberalised and accelerated” strategy has been severely criticised. Vaccination rates have fallen steadily nearly every week since early April as many states complained of shortage of doses.

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During Monday’s hearing, Chandrachud said those below 45 years have “suffered a great deal” amid the second wave of the pandemic. He questioned the government’s rationale that there was high mortality in those above 45.

“In this case if purpose is to procure vaccines then why should the Centre confine itself to only post 45 and leave pre 45 entirely to state for arranging logistics,” he asked. “How do we look at the marginalised and economically weaker ones?”

The Supreme Court noted that several states were also floating global tenders to deal with the shortage of vaccines, NDTV reported. But the Centre requested the court to not examine this as it was an academic question.

“Mumbai received bids from Sputnik,” the court said. “Are you leaving it to individual states... or does the Centre represent the entire country? It is not practical for states to get vaccines from abroad... leaving them in the lurch.”

The court sought to know if this was the Central government’s policy to make states compete with each other to get vaccines, Live Law reported. “You can’t just say that you’re the Centre and you know what’s right,” Justice Chandrachud said. “We have a strong arm to come down on this.”

The Centre responded that the entire eligible population of India would be vaccinated by the end of 2021. The government is in talks with pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and if it succeeds, then the timeline for completing the vaccination would change, the law officer added.

Digital divide

Justice Chandrachud also pointed out that many citizens have been unable to access the vaccine because of a digital divide. “How are you ensuring that the migrant workers are able to get vaccinated?” he asked Mehta.

The solicitor general urged him to take a look at the government affidavit. “Please smell the coffee,” Justice Chandrachud retorted. “If we had to do, we would have done so 15 days ago. But we want you to smell the coffee and realise what is happening in the country and make the necessary amendments.”

The Centre had made it mandatory for each beneficiary below 45 years to first register on CoWin, its online platform, with a relevant identity proof. After registration, users have to book a slot for themselves, which are extremely difficult to get, at a centre in their chosen state and district.

Mehta on Monday told the court that walk-in registration is allowed now, subject to the availability of vaccines.

“You keep on saying the situation is dynamic but policy makers must have their ears on ground,” the court said, according to PTI. “You keep on saying digital India, digital India but the situation is actually different in rural areas. How will an illiterate labourer from Jharkhand get registered in Rajasthan? Tell us how you will address this digital divide?”

Mehta claimed that registration for vaccination was mandatory as a person needed to be traced for a second dose. For rural areas, there are community centres where a person can get registered for vaccination, he added.

The bench asked Mehta whether the government thought that this vaccination process is viable and asked him to place the policy document on record.

The court noted that even those in cities were finding it difficult to book slots for vaccination, according to Live Law. It added: “This is a real fear amongst the people. I have gotten distress calls from people across the country, that they’re not getting slots. They’re all gone within seconds.”

Justice Chandrachud said: “Our own law clerks and friends have tried. Why are we not treating people with comorbidities and those who are marginalised on the same plane?”

He noted that digital literacy in India was “far from perfect”, according to Live Law. “If we say there is a problem, we expect you [the Centre] to look into,” he said. “I am the chairman of the e-committee. I have seen the problems which afflict this.”

The judge said that in villages, people had to register for vaccination at a common centre. “Is that really practical?” he asked the solicitor general.

The court directed the Centre to respond to its concerns and adjourned the hearing in the matter for two weeks.