The Supreme Court said the government's Liberalised Vaccine Policy is irrational and arbitrary. The digital divide in India, particularly between the urban and rural areas would hamper the Centre's efforts in achieving "its target of universal immunization," the top court added.
It directed the Centre to clarify how funds allocated for the vaccine program have been spent so far and why they cannot be utilized for vaccinating persons aged 18-44 years."
The top court has been hearing its suo motu matter on issues arising out of COVID. On May 31, the top court had expressed its concern over the Centre's vaccination policy and the rationale behind vaccine procurement and its dual pricing.
In its judgment—the order was released today—the top court also said that our Constitution does not envisage courts to be silent spectators when constitutional rights of citizens are infringed by executive policies, justifying the judicial review over the Centre's management of the COVID-19 pandemic in India.
"Judicial review and soliciting constitutional justification for policies formulated by the Executive is an essential function, which the courts are entrusted to perform," it added. The Centre in its May 9 affidavit had said there was no room for any over-zealous judicial intervention, though well-meaning and asked the top court to trust the wisdom of the Executive.
In a separate order, the Supreme Court has also asked the Centre to furnish the complete vaccine purchase history of all COVID vaccines including Covaxin, Covishield and Sputnik V. it also asked the Centre to "outline for how and when" it planned to vaccinate the remaining population in phases 1, 2 and 3.
Digital divide will hamper universal immunization: Supreme Court
"A vaccination policy exclusively relying on a digital portal for vaccinating a significant population of this country between the ages of 18-44 years would be unable to meet its target of universal immunization owing to such a digital divide," the top court said.
The top court was referring to the Centre's policy where anyone who wants to get vaccinated, must first register on the CoWin portal where they can choose the vaccine they want to opt for, time slots, centre and age group they fall under.
The top court's observation stems from a TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) report titled 'Wireless Data Services in India' that says that less than 578 million people in India (less than 50%) have subscription to wireless data services. The wireless teledensity in rural areas is 57.13% as compared to 155.49% in urban areas as on 31 March 2019.
"It is clear from the above statistics that there exists a digital divide in India…The extent of the advances made in improving literacy and digital access falls short of penetrating the majority of the population in the country...," the top court said.
The three-judge bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud further observed that the present system of allowing only digital registration and booking of appointment on CoWIN, coupled with the current scarcity of vaccines, will ultimately ensure that initially all vaccines, whether free or paid, are first availed by the economically privileged sections of the society.
During the hearing on May 31, the top court had observed that "digital illiteracy is far-flung in rural areas".
The bench, also comprising Justices LN Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, said that the "policymakers must have their ears to the ground" and asked the Centre to "wake up and smell the coffee and see what's happening across the country."
Centre's policy on dual pricing arbitrary and irrational: Supreme Court
The Centre's policy to conduct free vaccination for groups under the first two phases (ages 45+) , and replacing it with paid vaccination by the State/UT Governments and private hospitals for persons between 18-44 years is arbitrary and irrational, the top court said.
Currently, Bharat Biotech (Covaxin) and Serum Institute of India (Covishield) are manufacturing vaccines in India. The Centre is purchasing vaccines at Rs 150, whereas, States/UTs and private entities are buying vaccines at Rs 400. Paid vaccines in turn are being sold for Rs. 900 and above.
The top court reiterated that the Centre should consider utilizing its position as the "monopolistic buyer in the market and pass down the benefit to all persons".