The Indian Supreme Court has flagged the digital divide afflicting the accessibility to the CoWIN portal in its latest order in the Suo Moto Covid case, stating that it could have serious implications on right to equality and right to health.
"A vaccination policy exclusively relying on a digital portal for vaccinating a significant population of this country between the ages of 18-44 years would be unable to meet its target of universal immunization owing to such a digital divide. It is the marginalized sections of the society who would bear the brunt of this accessibility barrier", said the Bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat in its 31st May order, reports the Live Law.
The order also states that it has been brought to the notice of the Court that the CoWIN platform is not accessible to persons with visual disabilities, and that the accessibility barriers should be addressed.
Itr refers to survey on "Household Social Consumption: Education" conducted by India's National Statistics Office to highlight that around 4% of rural households and 23% of urban households possess a computer.
Further, in the age group of 15-29 years, around 24% in rural households and 56% in urban areas are able to operate a computer. It additionally showcases that 24% of the households in the country had internet access during the survey year.
The bench has also cited the report titled "Wireless Data Services in India" by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to underline that out of a population of 1.3 billion, only 578 million people in India (less than 50%) have a subscription to wireless data services. Also, few Indian States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Assam have a tele density of less than 75%.
In response to the Solicitor-General's submission that those who do not have access to digital resources can take help from family, friends, NGOs and Common Service Centres, the Order refers to the Annual Report of CSC for 2019-2020, published by Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to state that approximately 13,000 Gram Panchayats in India do not have a CSC.
The order states that there exists a digital divide in India, particularly between the rural and urban areas. Also, the extent of advances made in improving digital literacy and digital access falls short of penetrating the majority of the population in the country.
Affidavit submitted by Union of India had contended that CoWin portal allowed the registration of four persons using the same mobile number, and that as all Gram Panchayats had CSCs, it would effectively enable people residing in rural areas to get registered online for vaccination.
It had further been averred that walk-ins could not be permitted due to the scarcity of vaccines and fear of over-crowding at centres. Online registration would counter this fear and also monitor administration of second dose. Walk-in vaccination facilities would however continue for persons over 45 years in separate, designated vaccination centres.
The Indian Supreme Court flagged several issues with the Centre's vaccine policy, and observed that the policy of paid vaccination to 18-44 years is prima facie "arbitrary and irrational". The Court also sought to know how the budgetary allocation of Rs35,000 crores have been spent to procure vaccines and why they can't be used to provide free vaccination to 18-44 years age group. Concerns were also raised about the "digital divide" in accessing Co-Win portal for getting vaccine slots. It has also directed the Union Government to respond to the observations made by the bench by filing a fresh affidavit. The Court has also called for all relevant documents and file notings reflecting the thinking of the Centre on the vaccination policy.
The court directed the Union to undertake a "fresh review" of the vaccination policy in the light of the concerns raised by the court.
"We find that the the Liberalized Vaccination Policy may not be able to yield the desired results of spurring competitive prices and higher quantities of vaccines", the court observed.
The case will be next considered on 30 June.