New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday slammed the Centre for asking it to keep its hands off the Covid vaccination policy and termed the government’s decision to provide free vaccination to 45-plus, health care and frontline workers in Phase I, but in Phase II allowing private hospitals to charge those in 18-45 group as "irrational" and “arbitrary”. In a stern order, the top court asked the Centre to furnish details of the purchase of all vaccines — Covaxin, Covishield and Sputnik V — till date, including “file notings reflecting its thinking and culminating in the vaccination policy”, dates of all procurement orders placed and the quantity of vaccines procured. It also asked the Centre to "place on record a roadmap of projected availability of vaccines till 31 December 2021".
Saying that the issue of vaccination is absolutely essential and is the “singular most important task” for the government, the top court asked the Centre to furnish the complete vaccine purchase data within two weeks’ time. The top court also sought data on the percentage of population that has been vaccinated (with one dose and both doses), as against eligible persons in the first three phases of the vaccination drive.
“Policy of Centre for conducting free vaccination for groups under first two phases and replacing it with paid vaccination by states/UTs and private hospitals for persons in 18-44 years age group is prima facie arbitrary, irrational,” said a special bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L.N. Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat hearing a suo motu case on Covid-19 management.
Referring to the Union Budget for 2021-22 which earmarked Rs 35,000 crore for procuring vaccines, the Supreme Court also asked Centre to clarify “how these funds have been spent so far and why these funds cannot be utilised for vaccinating all (free of cost) in the 18-44 group”.
“While filing its affidavit, UoI (Union of India) shall also ensure that copies of all the relevant documents and file notings reflecting its thinking and culminating in the vaccination policy are also annexed on the vaccination policy. Hence, we direct the UoI to file its affidavit within two weeks,” the bench said in its May 31 order, which was uploaded on Wednesday on its website.
The top court objected to the Centre's affidavit claiming that "any over-zealous judicial intervention, though well-meaning, in the absence of expert advice or administrative experience may lead to unintended circumstances where the executive is left with little room to explore innovative solutions.”
Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who was heading the bench, told the Centre that “it is trite to state that separation of powers is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution,” asserting that “the separation of power does not result in courts lacking jurisdiction in conducting a judicial review of policies.”
“Our Constitution does not envisage courts to be silent spectators when constitutional rights of citizens are infringed by executive policies. Judicial review and soliciting constitutional justification for policies formulated by the executive is an essential function, which the courts are entrusted to perform,” the court said in its 32-page order..
Flagging several other flaws in its vaccine policy -- including shortage of vaccine doses and problems faced by rural people in accessing vaccines -- the court also directed the Centre to give an outline for “how and when the Central government seeks to vaccinate the remaining population in phases 1, 2 and 3” and the “steps being taken by the Central government to ensure drug availability for mucormycosis (black fungus).”...