The Covid-19 tragedy that is unfolding in India is of truly epic proportions. There is the scandal of people dying because of lack of oxygen in hospitals; there is the scandal of lack of hospital beds and medicines; there is the scandal of deaths due to Covid being covered up and there is the scandal of the vaccine shortage and profiteering sanctioned by the government. But the biggest scandal of all is the Modi government itself.

India is witnessing the biggest human catastrophe since independence. It is the worst calamity in terms of human lives lost since the Bengal famine of 1943 when around three million people died due to hunger, malnutrition and disease.

The culprits for this holocaust were British imperialism and the colonial policies pursued by the British raj. The large scale deaths during ‘partition’ are not comparable as it was due to mutual slaughter and communal killings.

In the current pandemic, disregarding the grossly underestimated official tally, at least a million have died and the toll continues to mount. This figure, however, is a conservative estimate, multiplying by five, the two lakh dead officially declared.

It will not require any historical research to pin the responsibility for this catastrophe on Narendra Modi and his government. Nothing exemplifies the culpability of the Modi government more than the newly-announced vaccine policy of the government on April 19.

At present, the country and the world are gripped by the horrific scenes of gasping patients deprived of oxygen dying inside and outside hospitals. In the coming days, transporting liquid oxygen, ensuring their supply to hospitals and urgent measures to increase oxygen production capacities will be in focus.

However, in the immediate future, it is the vaccination drive to cover all adult citizens which should engage our attention. The government’s vaccination programme is the most callous, discriminatory and iniquitous policy designed. The centre has abdicated its responsibility and pushed the entire burden of procuring vaccines for the 18 to 45 age group wholly on to the states who do not have the resources to do so.

By declaring that 50 per cent of the vaccine production will have to be directly procured by the state governments and private hospitals, the way has been opened for a debilitating competition among states to get hold of the limited production of vaccines.

Firstly, under the prime minister’s direct approval, the duopoly of the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech companies have got the licence to profiteer and earn super profits at the expense of the people.

Secondly, the government cynically announced that from May 1, all those above 18 years are entitled to be vaccinated knowing fully well that the centre has failed to scale up vaccine production in the country, or, procure adequate vaccine stocks from abroad. By asking states to procure vaccines for this at higher prices, it seeks to deflect the blame for not getting enough vaccines.

Thirdly, two private vaccine companies will determine which states get how much vaccine and at what time. At one stroke, state governments have been made supplicants of a duopoly. Not only that, the state governments have to compete with private hospitals and corporates to get vaccines.

The result can be seen in the way vaccination for those 45 years and above has slowed down in all states. Reports show that compared to the beginning of April, vaccinations have come down by half in the states due to the non-availability of vaccines. The central government and the health ministry continues to deny this reality and maintain that there is no vaccine shortage. The health minister has attacked the states complaining of vaccine shortage as those trying to cover-up their own failure to tackle the Covid epidemic effectively.

The Serum Institute of India announced the price of Covishield as Rs 400 per dose for state governments and Rs 600 for private hospitals. The Bharat Biotech has gone further and fixed Rs 600 per dose for state governments and Rs 1,200 for the private sector. This is nothing but rank profiteering.

The Modi government’s next step has been predictable. It has appealed to vaccine companies to reduce the price. A token reduction can be expected and the centre will take credit for this. But the inequity and rapacity of the vaccine policy will remain.

This is unacceptable on all counts. The government has to immediately scrap its policy and announce a new one that is based on free and universal vaccination.

The central government has already got Rs 35,000 crores through budgetary allocation for vaccines. The finance minister had stated while presenting the budget that more will be provided when required. But now the centre, which has spent just Rs 10,000 crore for vaccines for people above 45 years, is denying the states’ funds for vaccines. The centre can easily augment the Rs 25,000 crore left from the budgetary allocation to ensure that free vaccination is done through the states.

There is widespread anger among the people about the way the Modi-Shah duo have gone about dealing with this health emergency. While this is totally justified and there has to be a political reckoning, the paramount task right now is to ensure the protection of people’s lives by rolling out a comprehensive vaccination programme.

For this, the government has to take the following steps: It must, using the wide powers it has under the Disaster Management Act and the Drug (Prices Control) Order, fix the price for procuring vaccines in bulk by the centre. The centre has to supply vaccines to the states as per a transparent formula. States should be allowed to decide the priorities for rolling out the vaccination programme.

To accelerate vaccine production, compulsory licensing must be invoked and the production of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin (research for which was publicly funded) be assigned to the six public sector drug companies and other private concerns. This is apart from speeding up the production of the Sputnik V vaccine in India by the various companies who have applied for its production. These efforts are to be supplemented by the urgent imports of vaccines from wherever they can be acquired.

The least that the Modi government can do to salvage the ruinous situation is to announce an equitable and comprehensive policy which ensures free and universal vaccination.

Prakash Karat is member of the CPI-M Politburo.