Bihar BJP Promised Free Covid-19 Vaccine In Its Manifesto: Exactly Which Part Of That Is Problematic?

Bihar BJP Promised Free Covid-19 Vaccine In Its Manifesto: Exactly Which Part Of That Is Problematic? Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (Twitter)
  • A political party in its manifesto, for a state going to polls, promises that it will provide the eventual Covid-19 vaccine for free if it is elected to power.

    While there can be questions on that, protests are what defy logic.

The promise of providing free Covid–19 vaccines to the people of Bihar was made in the BJP’s manifesto for the upcoming elections and since then, it has been criticised by leaders of the Opposition parties, eminent thinkers, and several journalists.

Health in India is typically a state subject. However, poor performance by states on health indicators has often prompted the central government to intervene.

Most of the big healthcare programmes of the country are financed by the Central government while state governments simply implement the same.

Some state governments further complement these programs with their own state specific healthcare programmes. But the critical point is that at the end of the day, health is a state subject.

The present pandemic, however, was a major challenge and the Central government stepped in to bear a major cost associated with upgradation of our healthcare infrastructure.

The key issue of vaccine emerges as someone will have to pay for it – and the Central government has already indicated its commitment to pursue a national vaccination drive. However, the drive will entail state governments to step in and ensure its implementation within their state.

Typically, the Central government in such cases provides for a subsidised vaccine to the states and then state governments determine whether to pass it on with the subsidised price, reduce it further by giving a subsidy from the state exchequer or perhaps distribute it for free.

Therefore, state governments tend to have significant say in implementation of such programmes. A good example is the Aayushman Bharat program which was not implemented in states such as West Bengal due to the state’s objection.

So, the next question that emerges is whether a free vaccine is needed for the state of Bihar or not. One of the criticisms has been on the distribution of the vaccine for free – and many have even recommended that the money used to give the vaccine subsidy would be better spent on infrastructure in Bihar.

The argument is driven by ideology and disregards the importance of ensuring early vaccination of a major part of the country. For speedy restoration of economic activity it is critical that we attempt to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible.

While the state of Bihar may contribute a small share towards overall economic activity, especially in the manufacturing and services sector, however, even ethically, it would be wrong to leave out those who cannot afford the vaccine.

There is a question of ethics here – and it is further strengthened by the fact that good economics too dictates an attempt at providing the vaccine at a cheap and accessible rate. The objection to the decision to give it for free is perhaps something that makes limited sense.

The other allegation is that why should the vaccine be provided for free only to the people of Bihar – and why not to the rest of the country?

This again is a deliberate attempt at manufacturing a controversy. The BJP manifesto announced it for Bihar as it is entering into an election and political parties want to make their intention clear. Had there been elections in other states – perhaps we would have many other manifestos with the same promise.

Moreover, it is foolish (to say the least) to assume that the vaccine would be provided for free only for the state of Bihar. Many states would invariably provide the vaccine free – at least for the poor people, once a vaccine is ready and a formal vaccination drive is launched.

Thus, to assume that only Bihar will get a free vaccine is a problematic assumption which will prove to be inconsistent with what we witness over the coming months.

Moreover, there is nothing stopping the Opposition-ruled states from promising free vaccination drives in their own respective states. One hopes that they too will invariably recognise the economic, ethical and political justification for the same.

The third criticism is that the move is politicising the pandemic. The pandemic has been politicised by the Opposition in an attempt to derail every attempt by the government to bring the economy back on track. Most recent example would be the attempt to overturn the agricultural reforms, by several Opposition-ruled states, even though every expert has advocated for these reforms for nearly 4 decades, if not more.

On the politicisation issue, we should be happy if issues such as development, healthcare, immunisation become political issues. This will ensure that people are made aware of the importance of these while making a political choice which in turn will force policymakers to be accountable on these fronts.

To try to distort the statement made by a senior political leader while campaigning – and attribute it to the views of the minister, is indeed juvenile. The Finance Minister, while making these statements was not representing the government or her ministry but was simply representing the political party that she belongs to.

This attempt underlines the problems associated with the popular discourse which has become too misinformed – and is too busy in critiquing without gathering adequate understanding of the issue.

We must welcome the decision to provide free vaccines – and its inclusion in the manifesto of a political party. This is a welcome start and we hope that even post pandemic, some of the issues related to healthcare, environment and development receive greater political attention as they find greater space on their manifestos.


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