COVID apartheid: Asking states to pay more for vaccine discriminatory politics

Why can’t the Centre buy in bulk at Rs 150/dose and supply to the states? Well, the Modi government doesn’t want to get caught in a chaos that follows the demand-supply gap while still playing favourites

Is the Indian Centre a different entity than the Indian states? Are people residing in the states lesser citizens than those whose lord and master is New Delhi?

If not, which convoluted logic explains the Serum Institute of India’s (SII) decision to set different prices for its vaccine for the states and the Centre? And what justifies the Centre’s acquiescence to this irrational decision?

On April 21, a few days after the Centre tweaked its vaccine policy and allowed the states and the private sector to purchase corona vaccine shots directly from manufacturers, the SII announced it will charge ₹400 per shot from the states, and ₹600 from the private sector. The cost of the same shot for the Centre would be ₹150 though.

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In the middle of a raging pandemic, by abandoning its original plan of free vaccines for all, a promise it had made during the Bihar poll campaign, the Narendra Modi government has made another characteristic U-turn. After monopolising the vaccines for a good one year, it has suddenly abdicated its responsibility and passed the buck literally, as Shashi Tharoor pointed out in a tweet, to the states.

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As a result, states will now compete with each other to purchase the vaccines in the middle of a milieu where demand exceeds the supply by a huge margin. Modi’s shibboleth of co-operative federalism will now be replaced with competitive federalism.

In addition to the state-eat-state competition that would follow this policy change, it would have financial ramifications for state governments, who will now have to conjure huge amounts at a short notice to vaccinate their populations when their balance sheets already show huge holes because of the pandemic’s impact on tax collections and other revenues. The states with greater resources and better balance sheets would obviously have an unfair advantage in this race to buy from manufacturers.

The Modi government is the only one in the world to have adopted a vaccine policy that pits state against state, and by inference citizens against citizens. Across the world, the Centre has taken the responsibility of vaccinating its citizens, free of cost even when the cost of the shots is much higher than in India.

Why can’t New Delhi just buy the vaccines and allocate them to the states in accordance with a transparent and fair formula? In the 2021-22 Budget, the Centre had allocated ₹35,000 crore for vaccinating at least 50 crore Indians, free of cost.

Also read: SC wants to know Centre’s ‘national plan’ on oxygen supply, vaccination

In an interview to ThePrint a day after Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Budget for 2021-22, T V Somanathan, expenditure secretary in the finance ministry, had said that the government will provide more funds for the immunisation exercise later in the year, if required. What happened to the promise? Even if the Centre wants states to foot part of the vaccination bill, why can’t it buy in bulk at ₹150 and supply to the states?

As always, there is a lot of politics involved here.

One, by suddenly abdicating its responsibility, reneging on its promise of free vaccination for all, the Modi government has passed the responsibility to the states, and shrewdly indemnified itself against the chaos that would certainly follow because of the demand-supply gap.

Two, the new policy would now let it play a game of favourites, which it was already playing by controlling the supply to states on the basis of an opaque policy, without getting blamed for it. It is almost a certainty that the BJP-ruled states will get easier access to funds and vaccines than governments run by Opposition parties. Faster disbursement of tax shares, grants and other allocations, and funds from the secretive PM Cares Relief Fund would be the BJP’s trump cards in this game of competitive federalism.

Also read: New vaccination policy will lead to malpractices, inequities: Policy watch group

Three, it would divert attention from the Modi government’s disastrous vaccine policy of not placing advance orders for shots like other countries. Throughout the pandemic, the Modi government has followed an ad-hoc approach highlighted by delays, about-turns and chaos. It would have been easier for the states if the Centre had announced in advance that it doesn’t intend to purchase and supply vaccines for all. In that case, the states would have been prepared both financially and logistically to place orders for purchase of vaccines. By asking the states to take over in the middle of a raging second wave, the Centre has run away from the battlefield.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has called out this abdication in her letter to the Centre, saying the states could have been allowed in February to stockpile vaccines. “No response was received from your end (to the demand for direct purchase). Now when the number of cases in the second wave is spiralling like anything, the Centre has chosen to tactically indulge in empty rhetoric and shy away from its responsibility for making available vaccines to the people of the country.”

Unfortunately, Indian citizens, primarily in non-BJP states, would pay a huge price for the Centre’s vaccine apartheid. Even if these states manage to buy the shots at a higher price, the burden will have to be passed on to people, either through direct pricing or through indirect mechanisms, like a vaccine cess or a tax.

Throwing some states under the bus, creating a competitive environment where the results are rigged, may suit BJP’s politics. But it is a self-defeating idea. For, can India be immune to the next wave if citizens of some states are denied the shots because of prohibitive pricing, or lack of supply?

Will the unvaccinated people remain confined only to their states? Even if the Modi government doesn’t believe it, India is still one country, one nation; without borders.

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