Along with the Central and state governments, the Supreme Court has been playing an important role in monitoring the management of the situation arising out of the six-week-long Covid-19 second wave between the middle of April and the end of May. Through its order of April 30, the Supreme Court bench of Justices Dhananjay Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat had been actively directing the Central and state governments on the supply of liquid medical oxygen in the last week of April and the first week of May, and the availability of beds for critically ill patients in hospitals, as well as the availability of vaccines and their proper distribution across the country.
Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government has claimed credit for its decision on procuring vaccines directly and then allocating them to the states, announced by the PM in a televised address on June 7, the suggestion actually came from the highest court after scrutinising the Centre’s policy of acquiring 50 per cent of the vaccines at a set price and leaving the remaining 50 per cent to be negotiated by the state governments and private hospitals with the manufacturers.
The Supreme Court in its April 30 order had said: “Prima facie, there are several aspects of the vaccine pricing policy adopted by the Central government which require that policy to be revisited.” The court went on to add: “Prime facie, the rational method of proceeding in a manner consistent with the right to life (which includes the right to health) under Article 21 would be for the Central government to procure all vaccines and to negotiate the price with the vaccine manufacturers.” It concluded with a judicious note of warning: “While we are not passing a conclusive determination on the constitutionality of the current policy, the manner in which the current policy has been framed would prima facie result in a detriment to right to public health, which is an integral element of Article 21 of the Constitution.”
The court also noted that individuals and communities had turned to the social media for help and that through the online networks people had tried to help those in distress either by finding the medicines or hospital beds needed. And here comes the acerbic observation: “However, it is with deep distress that we note that individuals seeking help on such platforms have been targeted by alleging that the information posted by them is false and has only been posted on the social media to create panic, defame the administration or damage the nation’s image”. It went on to say: “We do not hesitate in saying that such targeting shall not be condoned, and the Central government and state governments should ensure that they immediately cease any direct or indirect threats of prosecution and arrest to citizens who air grievances or those who are attempting to help fellow citizens to receive medical aid.”
It is indeed a matter of shame that during a time of extreme distress, the Central and state governments had taken adversarial positions against the people, and the Supreme Court was forced to tick off the authorities and warn them against intimidating people. This is a judgment that should become an integral part of any account of Covid-19 in India, and political leaders in positions of power should hang their heads in shame.
It was after this chastening tone by the Supreme Court that the Central government, through the solicitor-general and its other law officers, has been filing affidavits informing the court about the availability of vaccines, a crucial part of the fight against the pandemic. Most of the vital information on the availability of the vaccines has not been shared by the government with the people. The daily press conference that the health ministry officials hold are used as a propaganda forum to trumpet the number of vaccinations that had been administered that day, and the total figure of those vaccinated. The other key figures like the number of new infections, the total number of those who have been infected since January 2020, and the Covid-19 death toll are relegated to the background. There is a vague promise that there will be enough vaccines available and that by December 2021 the entire adult population of the country, which amounts to 93-94 crore people, would be vaccinated. On May 16, the Union health ministry told the court that 216 crore Covid-19 vaccines would be available, but in its affidavit filed on June 27, the government revised the figure to 135 crores, and details were given of the share of each of the vaccines available or to be made available in the market.
The information about the availability of vaccines keeps changing simply because the government is still negotiating with foreign vaccine makers like Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson, and there is no clarity as yet on the outcome. It is understandable that the foreign manufacturers are bargaining hard, which is a shameful thing, and the government is in a helpless situation. That is why it wants to do make do with the vaccines available in the country, which have been developed and manufactured in India like Covaxin, or those which have been developed outside the country like Covishield and Sputnik V and are manufactured in India. But transparency has not been a virtue of the Modi government. There has been a continuous attempt to paint a picture of normality in abnormally stressful and distressful times.
The Prime Minister might be under the illusion that he is keeping panic under control, but he is only adding to uncertainty and anxiety among the people. He should have used his monthly radio talk “Mann ki Baat” to share information about the Covid-19 situation in the country and the difficulties that the government and people are facing. Unfortunately, even democratically elected leaders in India have the bad habit of hiding the truth from the people. It is in this kind of dubious situation that the Supreme Court is performing the yeoman service of compelling the government to share facts, to share information, something that the government should be doing on its own. The Supreme Court is thus ensuring the flow of crucial information to the people in this time of crisis.