The BJP announcement promising free Covid-19 vaccination for all in Bihar as part of its election manifesto has taken several states by surprise. Especially, since until now the vaccine conversation between the Centre and the states was around identifying who should receive it on a priority basis.
So the announcement of a free vaccine as an election promise singling out one state adds a political twist to a subject — Covid management — that has so far been largely framed by cooperative rather than competitive federalism.
States are trying to figure out what the implications are. Many see this as the first indication that the Centre will procure the vaccine — or vaccines — at rates it negotiates and states may then be asked to purchase their own stocks.
This is reinforced by the fact that the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration – part of the Centre’s Covid task force — made it clear, in its very first meeting, that states should not chart their separate pathways for procurement.
Also, significantly, minutes after the statement made by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, BJP IT cell’s Amit Malviya tweeted: “Like all programs, Centre will provide vaccines to state at a nominal rate. It is for the state Government to decide if they want to give it for free or otherwise. Health being a state subject, Bihar BJP has decided to give it free. Simple.”
It isn’t so simple. Once the BJP – ruling both in Patna and the Centre – has announced free vaccines for all in Bihar, few states will take a contrary stand. Indeed, within hours, Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu, which has elections next year, and of BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh announced free Covid-19 vaccination. More states are expected to make their announcements.
Responding to the BJP’s announcement, Health Minister T S Singh Deo from Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh reflected the views of many states: “We have not been told anything by the Government of India about the purchase of the vaccine. It is not an issue if we (states) are asked to pay. If we have to pay, we will…but vaccines should be made available in proportion to the population. A vaccine cannot be assured for a particular state. The Election Commission should take cognizance of this announcement.
Today’s announcement also comes when the expert vaccine group is exploring multiple mechanisms including advance market commitments as has been done by US and European countries.
Any indicative price for a single dose or double dose vaccine becomes a plausible figure once the vaccine has been able to demonstrate its safety and efficacy. Once that is done by multiple vaccines, prices will decline and decline drastically. Therefore we cannot hazard a guess of how much the outgo will be (until, possibly) July,” Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan had said.