1. ‘Child marriages may go unnoticed amid lockdown’
Weddings may be restricted to houses due to norms: activists
Last year, as the pandemic took grip of the world and India went into a lockdown, child rights activists were alarmed to see a slew of child marriages being reported in Karnataka. Now, with another lockdown in place and weddings being restricted to houses because of tough guidelines, there are fears of child marriages going unnoticed.
Fr. Antony Sebastian, Chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR), told The Hindu that a total of 2,180 child marriage cases were reported in Karnataka as per reports of Childline (1098) from April 2020 to January 2021.
In December last year, of the 1,598 complaints, 365 were related to this category. The other complaints ranged from illegal adoptions, child trafficking and child labour to the need for medical help or shelter.
Last year, 579 complaints were received in May by Childline in Karnataka when India was observing the national lockdown imposed by the Central government. The number of complaints eased when lockdown restrictions were relaxed, but were still worrying. As many as 214 complaints were received in August and 111 in September 2020.
The number of such complaints for October 2020 was 190 and for November 321.
Number may go up
This year, in January alone (up to when data are available), 1,947 complaints were received overall in the State, of which 288 were related to child marriages.
Fr. Sebastian said with another lockdown in place and marriages being allowed in homes, the number of cases might go up.
Some activists and organisations have raised the issue with the Ministry and the Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD).
“Earlier, when child marriages happened at wedding halls, temples, etc., there were people who would alert the relevant authorities or activists who would be able to reach on time to stop them. But now, with marriages happening at homes, we may get fewer alerts and our going there could be treated as trespassing,” said Nagasimha G. Rao from Child Rights Trust, who has written to Minister Shashikala Jolle, under whom the Department falls. However, she is yet to respond.
P. Lakshapathi, founder and executive director of APSA (Association for Promoting Social Action), which collaborates with Childline in Bengaluru, said during the last lockdown, many child marriages were reported in Bengaluru Urban, too, probably due to the high number of migrants living in the city. This year, between January and April 2021, APSA had received complaints of 14 child marriage cases.
“During the first lockdown, we saw child marriages for a variety of reasons, ranging from insecurity for the girl, wherein the parents assume their responsibility is over with her marriage, to the fact that they could get away with a simple marriage without calling too many people, resulting in less expenditure. When we get information, we try and create awareness. Many people don’t know what the punishment is for the offence. When they learn about it, they are surprised,” he added.
He urged the people to alert Childline if they come across child marriages.
“If people get to know about such marriages, please inform Childline. Cases are booked even after the couple has a child if they are under-aged… To prevent more such cases, the key is awareness among people,” Mr. Lakshapathi added.
Anuradha K.N., Director, DWCD, said every district had a committee to tackle child marriages and they had been activated to conduct regular inspections.
“In most cases, child marriage whistle-blowers are relatives or neighbours… Smaller marriage functions may not mean more cases going unnoticed,” she said.
Child Marriage and Pandemic
- Important Findings by ChildLine India:
- Madhya Pradesh recorded 46 child marriages between November 2019 and March 2020, a figure that jumped to 117 in just three months of the lockdown from April to June 2020.
- Across India 5,214 child marriages were reported in the first four months of lockdown between March to June.
- Age Factor:
- Some parents consider the age period of 15-18 as unproductive, especially for girls, so they start finding a match for their child during this age period.
- Underaged girls are more prone to child marriage than boys.
- The Right To Education Act makes education free and compulsory up to the age of 14 only. Research shows that after a girl is taken out of school at the age of 15, there is a strong possibility of her getting married at an early age.
- Law and Order are still not able to provide a secure environment for the girls in adolescent age, so some parents get their girl child married at a young age.
- Lack of Education:
- Girls are often seen with limited economic roles. Women’s work is confined to the household and is not valued.
- In addition, there is the problem of dowry. Despite the fact that dowry has been prohibited for five decades (Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961), it is still common for parents of girls in India to give gifts to the groom and /or his family either in cash or kind.
- Causes for Increase during Pandemic:
- Economic pressures due to the pandemic have pushed poor parents to marry off girls early.
- With no schools, safety of children, particularly girls, was a major reason for increase in violence against children and child marriages.
- Age Factor:
- Child Marriage is associated with higher rates of Sexually Transmitted Infections including HIV.
- Delays Demographic Dividend:
- Child Marriage contributes to larger families and in turn, population growth. This delays demographic dividend that would have come from reduced fertility and investment in education.
- Children married at a young age do not understand the responsibilities of marriage. This results in a lack of understanding among family members. Hence, disturbs the institution of the family.
- Impact on Child Bride:
- Violation of rights:
- Married at a young age, girls get deprived of their basic rights. Some of the basic rights as mentioned in the Convention on the Rights of Child include Right to Education, Right to Rest and Leisure, Right to Protection from Mental or Physical Abuse including Rape and Sexual Exploitation.
- Poor Socialization:
- Child Brides often have to give up their education due to household responsibilities. It is said that if the women of a house are educated, she, in turn, educates her family. But if she is uneducated, she loses on to the opportunity to educate her own children.
- Since child brides are not able to complete their education, they remain dependent and underpowered which acts as a big hurdle towards achieving gender equality.
- Health Issues:
- Devastating repercussions on the health of Child Brides, who are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers.
- According to research, the risk of maternal mortality is highest for adolescent girls in the 15 years of age.
- Also, they have 23% greater risk of disease onset including heart attack, diabetes, cancer, and stroke. They also face a high risk of psychiatric disorders.
- Violation of rights:
- Government Initiatives to Prevent Child Marriages:
- The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 restricts the practice of child marriage.
- The Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 prescribe 18 and 21 years as the minimum age of consent for marriage for women and men respectively.
- The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 was enacted to address and fix the shortcomings of the Child Marriage Restraint Act.
- Union Ministry for Women and Child Development set up a committee to examine matters pertaining to age of motherhood, imperatives of lowering Maternal Mortality Ratio and the improvement of nutritional levels among women. The Committee is headed by Jaya Jaitely.
- The Committee was proposed in the Union Budget 2020-21.
- Prevention of Child Marriage is a part of SDG 5 which deals with gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls.
2. Ivermectin used despite WHO advice
Indian physicians say it shows some good results and has fewer side-effects
Ivermectin, still listed in India as a possible treatment option for mild COVID-19 patients under home isolation, is not recommended for general use, according to a recent direction of the World Health Organization (WHO).
This orally administered drug is included in India’s revised national COVID-19 treatment protocol for people with mild infection, even though its maker has now clarified that there is no evidence of its efficacy against the viral disease.
Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s chief scientist, tweeted earlier this week, “Safety and efficacy are important when using any drug for a new indication. WHO recommends against use of ‘Ivermectin’ for COVID-19 except within clinical trials.”
Indian physicians who continue to use this drug state that it is an approved anti-parasitic agent. “It has shown, in laboratory settings, to inhibit SARS-CoV-2 replication. It may be effective for the management of early onset, mild COVID-19 for adult patients. In a clinical setting, it is observed that there is an early viral clearance in patients who are put on Ivermectin… There are no severe adverse effects noted in patients with non-severe COVID-19,” Vighnesh Naidu Y., consultant physician, Yashoda Hospitals, Hyderabad, said.
Sheela Chakravarthy, director, Internal Medicine, Fortis Hospitals, Bannerghatta Road, Bengaluru, said: “Ivermectin is used for the treatment of two illnesses — onchocerciasis, responsible for blindness, and filariasis, which is debilitating.”
Ivermectin was also found to be effective in reducing the multiplication of certain RNA viruses such as SARS and COVID RNA, she noted.
“It has shown efficacy to bind to the spike protein site of the RNA virus, thereby reducing the multiplication and attachment of the virus to the ACE receptor in the nasal epithelium,” she said.
Shafiq Ahmed, consultant, Urology, HCMCT Manipal Hospitals, New Delhi, said, “It is used for treatment of COVID-19 in mild to moderate cases. Since it is a safe drug, there are no major side effects reported till date.”
3. Bangladesh rebuffs China on Quad warning
Dhaka asks foreign envoys to maintain decency, decorum
Bangladesh’s government has asked foreign envoys in Dhaka “to maintain decency and decorum” after public remarks from China’s Ambassador to the country provoked a sharp response.
The strongly-worded statement from the Foreign Ministry followed remarks by China’s envoy in Dhaka, Li Jiming, who warned Bangladesh to not consider joining the Quad grouping and said doing so would “damage” relations.
While the informal India-Australia-United States-Japan framework has no plans as yet to expand, Mr. Li’s remarks were seen as an advance warning and followed similar recent comments by China’s Defence Minister, General Wei Fenghe, who on visits to Colombo and Dhaka last month urged countries in South Asia to not join any military alliances. Some Chinese officials have described the Quad as an “Asian NATO” and as a military alliance, a label that its members have rejected.
“Obviously it will not be a good idea for Bangladesh to participate in this small club of four because it will substantially damage our bilateral relationship,” Mr. Li said at a meeting organised by the Diplomatic Correspondents Association on Monday, the Press Trust of India reported.
The comment brought a sharp response from the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry, which said in a statement that Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told reporters “as a sovereign country, Bangladesh will determine the course of its foreign policy in the interest of its people” and “urged foreign envoys in Dhaka to maintain decency and decorum while speaking in public”. “We’re an independent and sovereign state. We decide our foreign policy. But yes, any country can uphold its position,” he was quoted as telling the media.
‘Treat as equals’
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing she “had not seen any reports from our Embassy in Bangladesh” on the issue. “So about the protest from the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, I’m not sure what exactly the protest is and what the accurate words are. But we always treat other countries despite their size as equals. We always follow the peaceful coexistence principle in developing bilateral relations and we always support each other,” she said.
“About the Chinese Ambassador’s remarks on the Quad we have made our position clear on this issue,” she said. “We believe it is an exclusive clique against China and trying to rally countries around China to work against China. So I believe you understand our position very clearly.” “It is not China who has been interfering in other’s internal affairs,” Ms. Hua added. “We follow the principle of non-interference in other’s internal affairs. India knows better than us about the Quad, what’s the true intention of the Quad, is it trying to exclude China, or to target against China. If so, then it is not about interference, it is about expressing opposition to this Quad group and expressing the hope it will stop doing so.”
Beyond the spat over the remarks, Bangladesh and China have been deepening cooperation, including on COVID-19. China invited Bangladesh, along with Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to a Foreign Minister-level virtual dialogue last month, the fourth such meeting organised with South Asian countries to discuss COVID-19 cooperation, and offered Chinese vaccines and a plan to set up an emergency reserve for supplies for South Asian countries. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the dialogue India had also been invited to the forum, but did not attend.
A day after the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry’s statement on the Chinese envoy’s remarks, it expressed its thanks to China for “gifting 500,000 vaccines” and said a “regular supply of Chinese vaccines to Bangladesh is under way”, as the Ministry shared a photo of Mr. Momen receiving a package of Sinopharm vaccines from Mr. Li.
4. WTO chief targets waivers for COVID vaccines in Dec.
DG says pushing for initial pact by July
World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on Wednesday said she was pushing for member-nations to reach some agreement by July and deliver a final outcome on the intellectual property (IP) waivers for COVID-19 vaccines at the next ministerial meeting in December.
“There are times when we can’t afford to take months and years… We are talking about lives being lost. Someone told me I am very ambitious. Yes, I am very ambitious when there are lives,” she said, emphasising the urgency to arrive at a swift pact on the intellectual property waivers needed to vaccinate the world faster.
During an interaction with Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal and World Economic Forum president Børge Brende, she expressed anguish at the second wave that had engulfed India and hoped the situation would be resolved soon.
“India has exported more than 40% of the vaccines… and we are very proud that India has been able to share when it had difficulties. And of course, all our hearts go out to the struggles that are there and I know that they will resolve very soon,” she said. Apart from India, China and the EU had also exported vaccines so far, she noted, thanking the three WTO members.
Stressing that her objective would be to push members to come to the table quickly and start discussions on the IP waivers, she said: “I am hoping by July, we will start to see something, with a final outcome by MC12,” she added, referring to the WTO’s ministerial conference set to take place in Geneva from November 30 to December 3.
Package on agriculture
Expressing the hope that the conference would encompass agendas important to both developing and developed countries, she said there would be wide disappointment if the WTO could not come up with a package on agriculture in order to meet food security concerns on a permanent basis.
“I very much like the food security angle because it’s real. We are experiencing it and so we will be trying to persuade our members to look at the issue of public stockholdings and making that permanent, with all the transparency that is required and I am sure India has no problems with that.” The Nigerian WTO chief added that domestic support issues and industrial subsidies also needed review.
“We have our work cut out for us, because we still have deep divides. But guess what, I am optimistic. We have to get it done. We just need some successes for the WTO,” she said.
World Trade Organisation
- Origin of WTO:
- The WTO is the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was created in 1947.
- The Uruguay Round (1986-94) of the GATT led to the WTO’s creation. WTO began operations on 1st January, 1995.
- The Agreement Establishing the WTO, commonly known as the “Marrakesh Agreement”, was signed in Marrakesh, Morocco in 1994.
- WTO is an international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations.
- Main difference between GATT and WTO was that GATT mostly dealt with trade in goods, the WTO and its agreements could not only cover goods but also trade in services and other intellectual properties like trade creations, designs, and inventions.
- Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.
- The WTO has 164 members (including European Union) and 23 observer governments (like Iran, Iraq, Bhutan, Libya etc).
- India is a founder member of the 1947 GATT and its successor, the WTO.
- Governing Structure:
- Ministerial Conference:
- Structure of the WTO is dominated by its highest authority, the Ministerial Conference, composed of representatives of all WTO members, which is required to meet at least every two years and which can take decisions on all matters under any of the multilateral trade agreements.
- General Council:
- It is composed of all WTO members and is required to report to the Ministerial Conference.
- Dispute Settlement Body and Trade Policy Review Body:
- General Council convenes in two particular forms:
- Dispute Settlement Body: To oversee the dispute settlement procedures.
- Trade Policy Review Body: To conduct regular reviews of the trade policies of individual WTO members.
- General Council convenes in two particular forms:
- To set and enforce rules for international trade.
- To provide a forum for negotiating and monitoring further trade liberalization.
- To resolve trade disputes.
- To increase the transparency of decision-making processes.
- To cooperate with other major international economic institutions involved in global economic management.
- To help developing countries benefit fully from the global trading system.
- Achievements of WTO:
- Global Facilitation of Trade:
- By building binding rules for global trade in goods and services, WTO has facilitated dramatic growth in cross-border business activity.
- The WTO has not only enhanced the value and quantity of trade but has also helped in eradicating trade and non-trade barriers.
- Improved Economic Growth:
- Since 1995, the value of world trade has nearly quadrupled, while the real volume of world trade has expanded by 2.7 times.
- Domestic reforms and market-opening commitments have resulted in the lasting boost to national income of nations.
- Increased Global Value Chains:
- The predictable market conditions fostered by the WTO, have combined with improved communications to enable the rise of global value chains, trade within these value chains today accounts for almost 70% of total merchandise trade.
- Upliftment of Poor Countries:
- The least-developed countries receive extra attention in the WTO. All the WTO agreements recognize that they must benefit from the greatest possible flexibility, and better-off members must make extra efforts to lower import barriers on least-developed countries’ exports.
- Global Facilitation of Trade:
- Recent Challenges:
- China’s State Capitalism:
- China’s state-owned enterprises present a major challenge to the free-market global trading system and the rulebook of the WTO is inadequate for addressing these challenges.
- It is due to this that USA-China are also engaged in Trade war.
- Institutional Issues:
- The Appellate Body’s operations have effectively been suspended since December 2019, as the USA’s blocking of appointments has left the body without a quorum of adjudicators needed to hear appeals.
- The crisis with the dispute settlement function of the WTO is closely linked to the breakdown in its negotiation function.
- Lack of Transparency:
- There is a problem in WTO negotiations as there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a developed or developing country at the WTO.
- Members can currently self-designate as developing countries to receive ‘special and differential treatment’ – a practice that is the subject of much contention.
- E-commerce & Digital Trade:
- While the global trade landscape has changed significantly over the past 25 years, WTO rules have not kept pace.
- In 1998, realizing that e-commerce would play a growing role in the global economy, WTO members established a WTO e-commerce moratorium to examine all trade-related issues relating to global electronic commerce.
- Recently, however, the moratorium has been called into question by developing countries because of its implications for collecting revenue.
- Agriculture and Development:
- Agreement on agriculture is facing issues due to food security and development requirements for developing countries like India.
- China’s State Capitalism:
5. Editorial-1: The science teaching and rationality India needs
The novel coronavirus crisis has fully revealed the price to be paid in the neglect of education and health
A speeding autorickshaw driver once told me that slowing down might not be very useful to avoid an accident. He was responding to my unease, sitting behind him, feeling helpless about the consequence I might have to face on account of his reckless manoeuvres, especially at turns and roundabouts. He agreed to slow down because I asked him to, but he was not convinced that it would help avoid an accident. I was intrigued to hear this view and asked him to elaborate. He said that if another vehicle was going to collide with him in the coming few minutes, speeding might save you from that collision. The collision itself was a matter of destiny, not chance, for him and his logic was based on that perception. He wanted to persuade me to realise that an accident is something inevitable. When it is to happen, it will happen. Therefore, slowing down might invite it as much as speeding would.
In academic parlance, this kind of logic has long been regarded as an expression of fatalism. This label does not allow nuances to be recognised in what is a broad framework for making sense of human life and its encounters with sudden changes, especially tragedies. Recalling this autorickshaw driver’s logic has helped me to make sense of arguments given in the context of diseases such as malaria and typhoid. When it comes to malaria, whether you get it or not depends on your ability to avoid being bitten by a mosquito. Of course not every mosquito, and not every bite, can cause malaria, but avoiding the proliferation of mosquitoes does prevent the chances of being infected by the parasite that causes malaria, carried by mosquitoes. Malarial mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, and that is where the imperative of avoidance begins.
Logic of avoidance
For many decades now, schoolchildren have scored marks by giving the correct answer to the question, ‘How can mosquitoes be stopped from breeding in our neighbourhoods?’ It is a rare school that gives children a task of going around noticing stagnant puddles formed during the rainy season containing visible mosquito larvae. The standard textbook line of action is to spread kerosene on stagnant water. That is what municipal workers supposedly do, and that is what is taught in the lesson on the services that municipalities provide.
As the pedagogic calendar goes, once a lesson has been delivered and the test based on it taken, there is no reason to recall its content in the later parts of the year, except for the final examination. So, if malaria, dengue and chikungunya persist during the long autumn and winter months, it is unlikely that a teacher will relate them to the lesson taught earlier on mosquito prevention. Thus, while mosquitoes are avoidable, the diseases they cause take on an inevitable character, quite different from the inevitability that my autorickshaw driver was associating with an impending accident.
Before the advent of antibiotics, typhoid fever and jaundice were life-threatening, and especially in the case of children. Doctors knew that it was possible to prevent both these diseases by avoiding contaminated water. And this could be done by boiling drinking water. But more usually, boiling of water only started after someone had been diagnosed as suffering from typhoid, or from jaundice. In any case, boiling was cumbersome and expensive. Along with antibiotics, water purifying devices and bottled water have distanced us from the grim experiences associated with water-borne diseases prevalent before the 1970s. Common diarrhoea is still a threat to the life and health of babies. Instead of preventing it by ensuring the supply of clean water in all geographical locations, India as a nation has ended up addressing the problem of drinking water by popularising personalised devices.
No public systems
The absence of public systems has proved costly both in health and in education. The teaching of science from the primary levels was a major policy initiative taken in the early decades of Independence through which the welfare state hoped to create general awareness on crucial matters of disease prevention and health. But the teaching of science is more than talking about science and telling students what ought to be done. In the case of boiling water, for example, it is hardly enough to say that high temperatures kill microbes. To achieve the belief that it actually does, one needs to see microbes with one’s own eyes.
For an overwhelming majority of children, our system of education fails to provide them this kind of experience, even at the higher secondary level. The idea that boiling purifies water remains a matter of giving the correct answer in the examination, rather than a belief based on evidence seen through a microscope. This can hardly be described as a failure of education, because the seed of a capable public system was never sown, and, therefore, we could hardly expect a harvest. The novel coronavirus crisis has fully revealed the price that the neglect of education and health has wreaked.
Just this week I had the opportunity to talk to a city-based rickshaw puller who had booked a seat in a private bus which would take him to his native village in Uttar Pradesh. When I asked him why he was going, he gave me the obvious answer I had expected, referring to the sheer inadequacy of income to sustain himself in the city. But then he mentioned another reason why he had to go urgently, and this had to do with a wedding in the village. He had to attend it, he said, otherwise his relatives would feel upset with him. It did not help our conversation when I alluded to the risk of him contracting the novel coronavirus while travelling in a bus and later attending a wedding ceremony.
He was not particularly interested in my concern that he must take every precaution, and especially make sure that he did not remove his mask during the journey and during the wedding ceremony. His response to my concern for his well-being reminded me of what the autorickshaw driver had said many years ago, namely, that the inevitable cannot be avoided. In this case, the inevitable was hardly a matter of fate. In fact, it is the wedding that was inevitable and therefore unavoidable, even if it posed the risk of getting sick.
My interlocutor also shared with me the feeling that the pandemic is mainly in the big cities and that villages are free of it. Apparently, despite being on WhatsApp, he had not heard about the surge currently being witnessed across rural parts of northern India. But the most interesting part of this conversation had to do with the mask. If the mask, a bit like boiling water, prevents an invisible microbe from entering the human body, it is a matter of faith for someone who has no idea of the world of invisible pathogens.
The mask and the citizen
We may wonder why several western countries, where education is supposedly better, also failed to convince their citizens to wear masks. This argument is based on a positive stereotype of the West. Looking more closely at different countries that comprise the West, one noticed sharply differentiated levels of the quality of their school science. Over the last half century, some of the richest countries have allowed science at school to decline. India’s education system, which was already impoverished, suffered severe cutbacks under the repeated waves of lopsided economic reforms. New norms of public financing have undermined science teaching, robbing ordinary citizens of the intellectual resources they might have acquired during childhood.
But science teaching alone cannot create miracles. For science to mean anything, a rational social environment is needed. Moreover, for science to acquire meaning during school life, it is important that children grow up in an ethos where dissent and debate are encouraged. It is obvious that the benefits of science and its teaching do not accrue when the democratic order, and the institutions on which it is based, are not in good health.
6. Editorial-2: Forget ‘play’, the machine needs to be scrapped
The Centre must revisit its vaccine policy by procuring 100% doses which can then be equitably disbursed to States
In its affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court on May 9 in the suo motu COVID-19 management case, the Union of India avers, in the words of Justice Holmes, that “play must be allowed for the joints of the machine”. Arguably, in this instance, such play is irrelevant because the machine needs to be scrapped. The Centre must revisit its policy by procuring 100% of the vaccine doses which can then be equitably disbursed to the State governments.
Reasons to revisit policy
The States were indeed thoughtless to ask for an immediate expansion of vaccination to all adults, beyond the 45-plus years priority group, but the affidavit shows the Centre as cavalier and spiteful. The submission provides three good reasons to revisit the new “liberalised” policy.
First, it is indefensible and out of line with international practice; put bluntly, it is patently stupid.
Second, it is incoherent and internally inconsistent — it alludes to liberalisation while controlling both price and quantity for every State — an inevitable consequence of the infeasibility of a liberalised policy at this time. Indeed, the Centre is currently threatening to penalise States that are not administering sufficient second doses.
Third, the submission frequently resorts to legal legerdemain, obfuscating the argument, instead of constructively addressing the essential problem at hand.
To begin with, at a time when the Centre is deciding which manufacturer of Remdesivir, hitherto a competitively marketed drug with multiple manufacturers, will sell how much to which State at what price, it is concomitantly deregulating the vaccine market, which currently has just two suppliers, in a situation of extreme shortage, exacerbated by adding 600 million 18 to 44-year-old citizens to 200 million unvaccinated people above the age of 45. This is far from using “differential pricing… to instil a competitive market”, a goal best left for later. In every other country, only the national government is buying vaccines, with odd exceptions such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where corporates are allowed to buy internationally, to vaccinate their workers for free. It is also perplexing why Covaxin is not more widely licensed, given that the affidavit makes it clear that much of the core work in developing the vaccine was done at the ICMR-NIV in Pune.
The high price States will pay
In the affidavit, the Centre baldly admits that “by nature of its large vaccination programme, [it] places large purchase orders for vaccines as opposed to the State Governments and/or Private Hospitals and therefore, this reality has some reflection in the prices negotiated” — i.e., it can buy vaccines cheaper than States or the private sector. If so, why should it not buy and distribute, as it was doing till April 30?
Next, the Centre takes 50% (it may have booked more than its share) to give to States for the 45-plus age group, and the States get 25% of the total vaccine production for their use. Each State is “informed by the Central Government in writing about the number of vaccines it would receive….” Further, “by conducting informal consultations with the vaccine manufacturers, [it] ensured that the prices of vaccine is uniform for all the States”, i.e., the Centre has fixed both quantity and price. It is clearly not a liberalised policy.
The balance 25% in each State “will go to the private sector based upon the contracts between private sector and vaccine manufacturers,” but how is the private sector in a specific State defined, since contracts are at a corporate level and not by State units? Also, what happens if the private sector cannot absorb the 25%? After all, in terms of CoWIN sites, the private sector, which earlier had about 10% share, is now under 3%. Day before yesterday, Bihar had nine sites, Chhattisgarh, 32 and Arunachal Pradesh had none. The private sector allocation actually privileges large urban areas, where it is more present.
Thus, instead of the full production at zero cost, the States now get one quarter of the production at twice or more the price paid by the Centre. The private sector will access the other quarter, at a landed cost that, based on current reports, might be up to 10 times the price it paid earlier.
Little did States know that their petulant insistence on immediate universal vaccination would come at such a high price.
The Centre has little to show
But, cannot States secure other supplies, e.g., via global tenders that many are now floating? The affidavit states, quite sensibly, that “efforts in the direction of procurement of other vaccines from other countries is essentially a responsibility of the Central Government” and “discussions for procurement of vaccines… has been going on since third-quarter of 2020… These negotiations are a complex undertaking which is currently ongoing on a war footing using all resources including diplomatic channels.” Effectively, the Centre has been trying for over six months, with little to show for it. Thus, States are either being led up the garden path — it is difficult to accept that States are so naive — or their global tenders are just grandstanding.
Finally, legal legerdemain, that is most evident in the response to door-to-door vaccination. Yes, it is impracticable. But, the spirit was to make vaccination easier to access, e.g. through pop-up centres in communities, maintaining the necessary protocols. Instead, after expending five pages on creating and demolishing an unnecessary straw man of door-to-door vaccination, the affidavit dismisses the central question as to “whether the Central government will revisit its policy by procuring 100% of the doses which can then be equitably disbursed to the State Governments” with an airy “the answer has been already elaborated hereinabove”, when it has no such answer.
Is there not enough residual trust between the Centre and States for such equitable distribution? If so, the need is to reinvigorate this trust, rather than accept policies leading to further Balkanisation.
What then does this liberalised policy accomplish? It increases the vaccine maker’s revenue, with a weighted price of ₹477 per dose for Covaxin and ₹302 per dose for Covishield, based on prices to be paid by States and private firms. (On pricing, the weighted average is calculated based on a share of 50% for the Centre, 25% for States and 25% for the private sector for both vaccines, according to the affidavit. Covaxin and Covishield are both at ₹154 — for the Centre, and ₹400 for States and ₹1,200 for the private sector for Covaxin and ₹300 for States and ₹600 for the private sector for Covishield.) While this is possibly too high, their revenue can be raised more simply by increasing the Centre’s price, currently ₹154, and providing the comfort of large long-term orders for 100% of India’s needs, enabling firms to invest more and sell globally. States could bear the extra cost directly without this convoluted new policy. It could even be financed by special interest-free 50-year loans to States, as promised last year for infrastructure, by the Finance Minister.
The Union Minister for Health has clearly stated that “those who can afford to get them at the private and corporate sector rates shall go ahead”. Should such a policy be accepted, one that makes supplies less reliable and vaccination more expensive and less equitable across geographies and sends the marginalised to the back of the queue? One that delays vaccinating the vulnerable, by halving their allocation? Or should this “new” policy just be scrapped?