New Delhi: At the peak of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the media slammed the Union government for its lackadaisical approach in placing orders for the Covishield and Covaxin vaccines, and claimed that the last order placed with the two vaccine makers (for 10 crore doses with Serum Institute of India and for 2 crore doses with Bharat Biotech) was in March 2021, the Press Information Bureau had trashed these reports as “completely incorrect” and “not based on facts”.
However, data now sourced by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare from its procurement agency HLL Lifecare Limited and provided in response to a Right to Information query has revealed that the media’s claims were accurate and the publicity wing of the government probably only tried to browbeat it.
It may be recalled that the PIB release of May 3 was titled “Media reports alleging that Centre has not placed any fresh order for COVID 19 vaccines are Incorrect and not based on facts”. It read: “There have been some media reports alleging that the Centre has not placed any fresh order for Covid-19 vaccines. The news reports suggest that the last order placed with the two vaccine makers (100 million doses with SII and 20 million doses with Bharat Biotech) was in March 2021. These media reports are completely incorrect, and are not based on facts.”
The Bureau also said 100% advance of Rs 1,732.50 crore (after TDS Rs 1,699.50 crore) was released to SII on April 28 for 11 crore doses of Covishield vaccine for May, June and July. It said, 100% advance of Rs 787.50 crore (after TDS Rs 772.50 crore) was released on the same day to Bharat Biotech India for 5 crore Covaxin doses.
As such, it said, “To say that fresh orders have not been placed by Government of India is not correct.”
However, in response to an RTI appeal filed by prominent activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd.), the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare recently revealed purchase orders by HLL Lifecare Limited, clearly showing that no fresh purchase orders were placed from the second half of March till the PIB made its claim on May 3.
HLL response to ministry confirmed media was right
The First Appellate Authority of the MoHFW had also obtained from HLL Lifecare Limited information sought by Batra regarding the purchase orders placed by it with SII and Bharat Biotech. These details, provided to Batra by the FAA through an order dated July 9, 2021, reveal that from the MoFHW funded agency, a total of six orders were placed for purchase of vaccines.
Three of these orders were placed with SII for purchase of its Covishied vaccines. The first order of 10 crore doses was placed on March 12, 2021, followed by 11 crore doses on May 5 and 25 crores doses on June 8.
The Ministry also placed three orders with Bharat Biotech, the first on March 12, 2021 for 2 crore doses, the second on May 5 for 5 crore doses and the third on June 8 for 19 crore doses.
The note also pointed out that the PM CARES Fund had placed four orders with SII – the first for 1.10 crore doses on January 11, 2021; for 1 crore doses on February 4; for 1.5 crore doses on February 13 and for 2 crore doses on February 25. It also placed two orders with Bharat Biotech – the first was for 55 lakh doses on January 11, 2021 and the second for 45 lakh doses on February 3.
Reacting to the development, Batra said the response “proves beyond doubt that media reports were correct.”
MoHFW First denied information
Batra had filed his RTI application on May 19. He had asked for certified copies of the orders placed for Covishield and Covaxin during 2020-21 and till the date of the response in the current fiscal.
In his response, on June 12, the MoHFW’s CPIO said, “[T]he document sought is exempted under Section 8(1)(a) of RTI Act, 2005 as it would prejudicially affect the strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State and is also exempted under Section *91)(d) of the RTI Act, 2005 as information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party.”
The CPIO also observed that “seeking documents as mentioned does not serve any larger public interest, even when details of purchase are being attached”.
Applicant said information sought was of ‘huge public interest’
In his first appeal, filed under the “life or liberty clause”, Batra said he was not provided information regarding the “quantity-wise, cost-wise, vaccine-wise” orders places for the purchase of Covishied from SII and Covaxin from Bharat Biotech. He thus asked for these details for 2020-21 and 2021-22 (till the date of response).
Batra said in the first appeal that the arguments of the CPIO were “mind-boggling” since the information on “dates, amounts and quantity of vaccine doses ordered” was already provided in the public domain.
He also pointed out that the information concerning purchases, tenders etc, was required to be mandatorily placed in the public domain in compliance with the Department of Personnel and Training’s order of June 1, 2011 that pertained to suo motu disclosure under Section 4 of the RTI Act.
Batra insisted that the information sought by him was of “huge public interest” as it was directly connected with the right to health and the right to life under Article 21 of the constitution.
First appeal also cited ‘supportive’ SC order
He also recalled that the Supreme Court had in its order of May 31, 2021 called for “the complete data on the Central Government’s purchase history of all the Covid-19 vaccines till date (Covaxin, Covishield and Sputnik V).” It had also stated that “the data should clarify: a) the dates of all purchase orders placed by the Central Government for all 3 vaccines; b) the quantity of vaccines ordered as on each date; and c) the projected date of supply.”
Apart from this, the apex court had also called for “an outline for how and when the Central Government seeks to vaccinate the remaining population in phases 1,2 and 3”.
Ministry then relented
In its response, the First Appellate Authority of the Ministry on June 12 provided Batra with the “purchase sanction order”.
Among other things, this note stated that on June 3, 2021, which was the sanction order date, “the MoHFW, Government of India through Union Budget has released sanction of Rs 2071 crore as 30% advance payment to the HLL Lifecare Limited (Procurement Agency for MoHFW) for procuring the Covid-19 vaccines (Covishield 25 crore doses and Covaxin 19 crore doses) at the unit cost of Rs 157.50, including taxes (Rs 150 + 5% GST).”
The “purchase sanction order” also stated that “The Union Budget 2021-22 provides for Rs 35,000 crore for Covid-19 vaccination. Out of this Rs 8067.75 crore has been released to the HLL Lifecare Limited (purchase agency for MoHFW) till date towards purchase of Covid 19 vaccines – Covishied (46 crore doses) and Covaxin (26.5 crore doses).” It added that of this amount, Rs 2,079 crore is 30% advance payment, not the full payment.
Several questions remain
Reacting to the developments, Batra said several questions on how the orders were placed arise from the revelations in the documents. He said in response to his email, the FAA clarified that the ‘Dates of Sanctions’ mentioned in the CPIO response were actually ‘Financial Sanction Orders’. However, he said, “the Financial Sanction Order for the same purchase is of 11.04.2021 as mentioned in CPIO response”. So, Batra asked if the government procured 12 crore vaccine doses in the order placed on March 12 on credit and paid for them only in April 2021.
Batra also asked why there was a delay of two weeks in placing the ‘Purchase Order’ of May 5, 2021 when the financial sanction for it was issued on April 22, 2021. Did these delayed actions by MoHFW lead to ‘felt shortage of vaccine doses’, he asked.
Batra also pointed out that while the CPIO’s response regarding the sanction order of April 22 had mentioned that the purchase was for 5.5 crore Covaxin doses, the purchase order was only for 5 crore doses. So, he asked, why was the purchase order for 50 lakh doses less?