New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday questioned the Centre on dual pricing policy of COVID-19 vaccines and said the government has to procure them and ensure that they are available at the same price across the country as states cannot be left in a lurch.
The apex court, which advised the Centre to be flexible with its policies, said the states are being asked to pick up and compete with each other in procuring vaccines.
“There is a vital issue. Article 1 of the Constitution says that India, that is Bharat is a, Union of States. When the Constitution says that, then we have to follow the federal rule. Then Government of India has to procure vaccines and distribute it. Individual states cannot be left in a lurch, a special bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud said.
The only thing we want to address is the dual pricing policy. You are asking the states to pick up and compete with each other, said the bench, also comprising Justices L N Rao and S R Bhat.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, argued that it is factually wrong to say that states are competing with each other for procuring vaccines as the central government has negotiated the price with vaccine manufacturers.
The top court was hearing a suo motu case on distribution of essential supplies and services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Mehta said these are policy issues on which the courts have limited judicial power, the bench said, 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.
The top court also asked Mehta whether it is the policy of the Centre that states or municipal corporations can procure vaccine or will the Union Government procure it for them like a nodal agency.
We want clarity on this and rationale behind this policy, the bench said, adding, We have some concerns regarding vaccination. We have different municipal corporations floating global tenders for procurement of vaccine. We also have example of different states like Punjab and Delhi who have sought to procure vaccines.
We want to know, is this the policy of the Government of India that every municipal corporation and every state is left to their own to get vaccine, it said.
Referring to Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the bench said it might have a budget comparable with some of the states in the country.
Does the Government of India contemplate that for the procurement of vaccines, there will be individual states or corporations making their own bids or are you going to be a nodal agency for procuring the vaccine? , it asked.
“Till date we do not have the policy document which articulates this. We want to see the files. To say that the Centre will procure at a lesser price and manufacturers are free to fix prices at their own whims for the states, we want to know the rationale behind this policy. We also want to know the rationale why the pricing of 50 per cent vaccines is left to the manufactures, the top court said.
Meanwhile, Mehta said that 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.
Entire eligible population is to be vaccinated by the end of this year. Government is in discussion with other vaccine makers both at the highest political executive level and the diplomatic level for procurement of vaccines from Pfizer. Sputnik V vaccine is also here. Discussions are at a very advanced stage and if more vaccines come into the country, then we may be able to shorten the deadline , he said.
Mehta said that many vaccine manufacturers like Moderna, Pfizer have their own policy that they would only deal with the Central government and not state governments and the issue of global tenders floated by municipal corporation may be academic.
He said the court should not go into vaccine pricing as it might hamper the ongoing negotiation with the manufacturers and may have an impact on the ongoing vaccination programme.
Please do not traverse this path. I request you, my lord. Entire world is facing this crisis and vaccine manufacturers are very few. With the Supreme Court of India looking into the files on pricing, it may not send a good message , Mehta said, adding that all decisions taken on pricing are bona fide.
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.
Earlier, the apex court had constituted a 12-member National Task Force to formulate a methodology for the scientific allocation of Oxygen to states and UTs for saving lives of COVID patients and to facilitate a public health response to the pandemic.