New Delhi: The Supreme Court grilled the Centre on Monday about the vaccine-procurement policy by highlighting its concerns on the dual-pricing and rural area access to the CoWIN digital platform.
"Why should states have to pay the higher price? Centre has to take over the responsibility of one price for the whole nation," the court stressed, pointing out that it had "price-fixing powers".
"Why has the government left it to manufacturers to fix the price of vaccines?" it asked.
A special bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, L N Rao and S Ravindra Bhat asked since the Centre has made CoWIN registration mandatory for vaccination, how is it going to address the issue of digital divide facing the country.
Highlighting digital divide between rural and urban India, the SC posed searching queries to the Centre on mandatory registration on CoWIN for COVID-19 jabs, vaccine procurement policy and differential pricing, saying the policy makers must have ears on ground to effectively deal with the unprecedented crisis.
Asking the Centre to "smell the coffee" and ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are available at the same price across the nation, a special bench advised the government to be flexible with its policies to deal with the dynamic pandemic situation.
We are not framing the policy. There is an order of April 30 that these are the problems. You should be flexible. You cannot just say that you are the Centre and you know what is right. We have a strong arm to come down on this, the bench said.
Towards the end of the hearing, the bench however hailed the Centre and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar for the efforts to deal with the pandemic saying, The idea is not to criticize or pull down anybody. When the EAM went to the USA and entered into the dialogue, it showed the importance of the situation.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the central government, also referred to the one-to-one talks undertaken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with heads of various nations to effectively deal with the situation and urged the bench not to pass any order which may impede the ongoing diplomatic and political efforts to get the vaccines.
The purpose of this hearing is dialogic. The purpose is to create dialogue so that the voices of others can be heard, the bench said, adding, We will not say anything which will impede the welfare of the nation.
Mehta also informed the top court about the normalising pandemic situation and said the entire eligible population (above 18 years of age) would be vaccinated by the end of 2021 and if ongoing talks with companies like Pfizer succeed then the timeline for completing the vaccination may get advanced.
Justice Chandrachud, who himself is recovering from coronavirus infection, questioned the vaccine procurement policy and raised the issue of digital divide questioning the policy of mandatory registration on CoWIN App for jabs.
You keep on saying the situation is dynamic but policy makers must have their ears on ground. 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, the bench asked.
You must smell the coffee and see what is happening across the country. You must know the ground situation and change the policy accordingly. If we had to do it, we would have done it 15-20 days back, it said.
Mehta replied that registration is mandatory as a person needs to be traced for a second dose and as far as rural areas are concerned, there are community centres where a person can get registered for vaccination.
The bench asked the Centre to place the policy document before it on record.
If we say there is a problem, we expect you to look into it. Digital literacy in India is far from perfect. I am the Chairman of the (Supreme Court) e-Committee. I have seen the problems which afflict this. You have to be flexible and keep your ears on the ground, the bench said.
On the Centre's procurement policy, it referred to the fact that states like Punjab and Delhi are in the process of issuing global tenders to procure foreign vaccines for COVID-19.
The bench said even Municipal Corporation like BMC has received bids.
Is this the policy of the central government that the state or municipal corporation can procure the vaccine or the Union Government is going to procure for them like a nodal agency? We want clarity on this and rationale behind this policy, the bench said.
It asked the law officer to address dual pricing policy and said, we have some concerns. Now we have a spectacle, where different municipal corporations, different states are issuing global tenders. We want to know, is this the policy of the Government of India... Does the Centre contemplate that for the procurement for foreign vaccines, that there will be individual states or corporations submitting bids or are you going to be a nodal agency for the bids."
It said: "Till date we have not seen the policy document which articulates this. We want to see the files. We want to know the rationale. To say that the Centre will procure at a lesser price, and manufacturers are free to sell it at a particular price to others, we want to know the rationale."
It said that India has a federal structure and the individual states cannot be left in lurch and the Centre should procure and distribute it among the states.
What is the vaccine policy of India. Do you treat yourselves as one National Agency and procure for the States or have the States been left on their own," the bench asked.
The bench also heard submissions from senior advocates and amicus curiae Jaideep Gupta and Meenakshi Arora on various aspects related to COVID-19 management in the country and asked the Centre to file an affidavit within two weeks on issues raised and discussed during the hearing.
The top court was hearing a suo motu case on management of COVID-19 situation in the country.
(With PTI inputs)