Modi’s Speech: Did PM End Up Admitting To a Failed Vaccine Policy?
The PM’s address needs to be seen in the context of the criticism from the Supreme Court and the vaccination mess.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to the nation on Monday, 7 June, is important from the point of view of India's COVID-19 vaccine policy. There are three key aspects to what he said:
- The Centre will now directly procure COVID-19 vaccines from manufacturers and supply it to states. This overturns the Centre's earlier policy of putting this responsibility on state governments.
- The PM also said that 25 percent of the vaccine output will be set aside for private entities. But there would be a cap of Rs 150 per vaccine on service charges.
- The PM laid the blame for the shortage of vaccines on state governments. "State governments demanded that the procurement of vaccines be left to them, so the Centre agreed," he said, adding that the Centre is now taking over, as this isn't working that well.
Besides these three main points pertaining to vaccines, the PM also announced that the Centre would provide rations to the poor untill the festival of Diwali, which is due on 4 November.
Other than that, the PM mainly focussed on claiming that India's vaccine policy and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been successful, compared to many other countries.
This article will look at the main focus of the PM's speech, India’s vaccine policy, and try and answer four questions:
- Is PM right in blaming states?
- What really caused the shortage of vaccines?
- Is the PM’s speech a course correction due to criticism from the SC?
- What are the political ends the government seeks to achieve?
Is PM Right in Blaming States?
As per the new policy announced by the Centre in April, manufacturers could sell 50 percent of the vaccines to state governments and private players while the remaining 50 percent would mandatorily go to the Centre.
Several experts warned that Centre should be the only authority for the procurement of vaccines so this policy went against that logic.
In fact it was the Centre that was showcasing the policy as an example of “shared idealism” and "decentralisation", which were few of the catchphrases it used.
The point is that even if states made such a demand for decentralisation, as the Centre has claimed, there was no reason for the Centre to listen to it especially with experts and international best practises suggesting otherwise.
Now that this policy has been set aside, the government has changed its stand. The PM during his address said that "health is a state subject". That may be the case, but pandemics are a concurrent subject, which was the basis for the entire centralisation of the vaccine procurement when it began.
What Really Caused the Vaccine Shortage?
No doubt, having states compete with each other in ordering vaccines as per the April policy, slowed down the vaccination process.
But the shortage also took place due to the simple fact that the Centre did not order enough vaccines and didn't order them on time.
For instance, the Serum Institute of India had offered 10 crore shots at a discounted rate for domestic use in December 2020 but the government fell short in placing an advance order. This delay had a ripple effect as it delayed SII's plan to ramp up production.
The vaccination programme was rolled out in January and the Centre procured 1.1 crore doses from SII and 55 lakh from Bharat Biotech. This was much lesser than India’s requirement.
Why did the government order less? Why did it restrict the procurement to only two manufacturers?
These are the questions that lie at the core of India's vaccine shortage. The Centre-State tussle came much later.
Has Centre Changed Its Policy After Being Pulled Up By SC?
The Supreme Court asked the Centre a number of tough questions. Here are some of its remarks on 31 May:
"You want the state governments to compete with each other to procure vaccines from private manufacturers? You can’t just say that you’re the Central government and you know what’s right. We have a strong arm to come down on this,"
We have to see the policy, we have to understand the rationale behind dual procurement and differentiated pricing. How do you justify states like Uttarakhand and Goa being made to procure vaccines on their own for everyone? Why do the states have to pay a higher price? You have to ensure that vaccines are available at the same price across the nation. You can’t have different prices for the Centre and the states.
Not just the SC, even the Madhya Pradesh High Court reminded the Centre of its responsibility to provide vaccines.
Political Spin and Damage Control
The PM's address needs to be seen in the context of the criticism from the Supreme Court as well as the ongoing mess in the vaccination process.
What the PM has done through his address is to try and minimise the political cost. He tried to paint a picture that the vaccination process was fine as long as the Centre was managing it but it went haywire once states took over.
This is far from the truth – as both the flawed policy and the initial underordering of vaccines – was entirely the Centre's doing.
It is possible that this could have come out in Court sooner or later. So scrapping the flawed policy introduced in April, the Centre may have pre-empted some of the damage.
Providing rations till November may also help the Centre assuage some of the anger among poorer sections due to the pandemic.
However, blaming states may help the BJP score a few points over bigger and more vocal Opposition-ruled states like Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan etc but it will harm itself as well, with a majority of states being ruled by the BJP.
In fact out of seven states going to the polls next year, the BJP is in power in six including the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh where the PM is engaged in a tussle with incumbent CM Yogi Adityanath.
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