The Supreme Court on May 31 had asked the Union government to give details on the amount spent so far out of the Rs 35,000 crore package, earmarked in the Union Budget for 2021-22 for procuring COVID-19 vaccines. The top court asked the Union government to explain why the fund cannot be used for vaccinating persons of the age group 18-44. While the Union governmentâs official reply to the Supreme Court is awaited, a response to an RTI query submitted by journalist and transparency activist Saurav Das shows that the Union government has used roughly Rs 4,500 crore of the total Rs 35,000 crore.
âRs 4488.75 crore has been released to the HLL Lifecare Limited (the procurement agency for the Union Health Ministry) till date towards procurement of COVID-19 vaccine(s) Covishield (21 crore doses) manufactured by M/s Serum Institute of India and Covaxin (7.5 crores doses) manufactured by M/s Bharat Biotech International Limited at the unit cost of Rs. 157.50/- including taxes (Rs. 150+ 5% GST),â according to the RTI response.
The Union government in the RTI response dated May 26 also said that initially, through PM-Care funds, the government procured 5.6 crores doses of Covishield at the unit cost of Rs 210/- including taxes (Rs. 200 + 5% GST) and 1 crore doses of Covaxin at the unit cost of Rs. 309.75/- including taxes (Rs. 295 + 5% GST). So, the Rs. 4488.75 crore has been used for the procurement of two COVID-19 vaccines at the unit cost of Rs. 157.50/- including taxes (Rs. 150 + 5% GST).
âThe procurement and vaccination of COVID-19 vaccine is an ongoing process," the RTI response added.
The Supreme Court posed this question to the Union government in its order on May 31 in the suo motu case that the apex court was hearing on the COVID-19 situation in India. Apart from calling the governmentâs policy âarbitrary and irrational, the court also said that the Union government justifying its lower prices (for vaccines) on account of its ability to place large purchase orders, raises the issue as to why this rationale is not being employed for acquiring 100% of the monthly CDL doses.
The Union Budget for Financial Year 2021-2022 had earmarked Rs 35,000 crore for procuring vaccines. "In light of the Liberalized Vaccination Policy, the Central Government is directed to clarify how these funds have been spent so far and why they cannot be utilised for vaccinating persons aged 18-44 years," the bench said.
The court said that if the government's unique position as the monopolistic buyer is the only reason for it receiving vaccines at a much lower rate from manufacturers, "it is important for the court to examine the rationality of the existing Liberalized Vaccination Policy against Article 14 of the Constitution, since it could place severe burdens, particularly on States/UTs suffering from financial distress."
The court said that the government should consider utilising its position as the monopolistic buyer in the market and pass down the benefit to all persons, adding that even if the states and Union Territories were to fund the higher-priced vaccines, these funds are expended at the behest of the public exchequer. The top court also asked the government to clarify the justification for intervening in pre-fixing procurement prices and quantities for states and Union territories and private hospitals, but not imposing statutory price ceilings, and the comparison between the prices of vaccines being made available in India to their prices internationally.