By K Raveendran
Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot be more right that the feat of 1 billion vaccinations is a symbol of national unity and strength. There have been no hues to the vaccination drive: no saffron, no green, no red. There was no caste, no religion either. It was also free from VIP culture, which is the bane of all government-sponsored initiatives.
In fact, the successful vaccination model should serve as an eye-opener and inspiration to the Modi government and the ruling party. Unlike almost every programme of the Modi government, marred by divisiveness and exclusion, the Covid vaccination drive has been completely inclusive and this contributed in no small measure to the success. It has been a truly national endeavour.
This is particularly significant as the early track record of the government was nothing much to write home about. It was full of pitfalls. The vaccine policy itself drew flak for the lack of cohesion and inclusiveness. The optics provided by the oxygen crisis and funeral pyres burning day and night in and around burial grounds and river banks as well as bodies floating in the river had done enough damage to the party’s future prospects for a considerable period of time. But the vaccine success has come as an anti-dote capable of neutralising much of the disability. Rather, it may have brought the party and the government enough credit to see the immediate future through.
Modi, in his national address to mark the completion of the 1 billion milestone, thanked the health workers, scientists, vaccine manufacturers and the people for contributing to the success. But for understandable reasons, he omitted another major role player. The unsung hero is the Supreme Court of India, which is singularly responsible for turning the Modi government’s vaccination policy on its head, which has made today’s success possible.
The government had launched its vaccination policy, providing for free vaccination to only the senior citizens in the first two phases of the drive. But with a second wave of the pandemic waiting at the doorstep, it nearly abdicated the responsibility of vaccinating the largest population segment of 18 to 44 age group by passing on 50 percent of the burden to the state governments, which were supposed to purchase the doses and organise distribution along with private hospitals, which were authorised to buy the doses at higher prices.
This would have put immunization beyond the reach of a majority of people belonging to the age group and would have implied disastrous implications for India’s vaccination drive. It was at this juncture that a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud intervened and struck down the government policy as ‘arbitrary and irrational’. The court also picked holes in the digital registration and booking of slots for vaccination through the official CoWin portal and asked the government to undertake a means test to ascertain whether even half of the people in the age group could afford to pay for their jabs.
In a series of directives, the court also asked for the complete data of the Centre’s vaccine purchases and summoned all relevant documents, including file notings, about the government’s vaccination policy, setting a strict deadline. The court also extracted from the government a commitment about the timeframe required to complete the vaccination for the entire population. It also refused to buy the Centre’s claim that people will not suffer because the vaccines were being purchased by the state governments.
The court also made critical interventions to regulate the prices vaccine manufacturers were allowed to charge, an issue on which the Modi government had faced a lot of criticism for trying to fatten the pockets of private vaccine manufacturers by ignoring established capacities in the public sector. The persistent efforts of the apex court forced the Modi government to completely revisit its policy towards purchase, pricing and delivery of the vaccines.
But for the court’s efforts, it would have been well-nigh impossible for the country to achieve today’s success, which has won admiration from not only within the country, but from the global community as well. It has certainly raised India’s credibility as the world’s vaccine factory will being a world of good for the country’s drug manufacturing industry. While it is true that a lot of the policy changes were thrust upon him, nobody can take away credit from Prime Minister Modi for the remarkable national success. All is well that ends well. (IPA Service)