Vaccines shouldn’t be compulsory for accessing rations!

Recently, a DC in Karnataka said that unvaccinated people would not receive PDS or pension entitlements. After significant public outcry, the decision was withdrawn. We wrote to the DC, appreciating the recall and asking him to ensure that vaccines aren't made mandatory for government benefits.

08 September, 2021
5 min read

tl;dr

Recently, a Deputy Commissioner in Karnataka said that those without vaccines would not receive ration or pension entitlement. After significant public outcry, the decision was withdrawn. We wrote to the Deputy Commissioner, appreciating the recall and asking him to ensure that access to essential government benefits is not made conditional on vaccination status.

Background

On 31st August, 2021, Deputy Commissioner MR Ravi of Chamarajanagar Karnataka said that:

“We've launched a drive with the slogan 'no vaccination, no ration'. To avail ration facility, the BPL & anthyodaya cardholders, around 2.9 lakhs in number, will need to take vaccine compulsorily.
We've also given the slogan of 'no vaccination, no pension'. We have around 2.20 lakh pensioners in (Chamarajanagar) district. We have instructed all the banks in this regard. These measures are part of our efforts to vaccinate everyone in the district.”

This statement generated widespread outrage, as several decried the campaign for linking vaccinations with the receipt of essential government welfare benefits such as rations and pensions. Subsequently, the DC clarified that no order linking vaccination with the provision of welfare benefits was given. The Chief Secretary to the Government of Karnataka also clarified that government benefits were not linked to vaccination status, and that if any such linking had taken place in any district then it must be withdrawn.

While the immediate threat of vaccine-dependent rations has diminished in Chamarajanagar, similar statements have been given in recent times:

  1. On 9th August, 2021, in Yadgir district in Karnataka, the deputy commissioner allegedly gave oral instructions to not give free rations to those who were unvaccinated.
  2. On 11th June, 2021, in Shahpura district in Madhya Pradesh, the Sihoda panchayat issued a diktat that stated that unvaccinated people would not be eligible for rations.
  3. On 6th June, 2021, in Gadag district in Karnataka, the Kotabal village gram panchayat passed a ‘no vaccine no ration’ resolution, only to later state that doing so would be illegal and this was meant to be a slogan to urge people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
  4. On 5th April, 2021, in Bandipora district in Jammu and Kashmir, the Assistant Director for Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs said that rations would not be provided without a vaccine certificate.
  5. Last month, in Sundergarh district in Odisha, rumours were spread to the effect that those without vaccines would have their ration cards cancelled.
  6. In 2018, in Bijnor district in Uttar Pradesh, the Additional Chief medical Officer of Kotwali Dehat block said that those who did not get their children vaccinated would not receive rations.

Such harsh steps by administrations must be condemned - in the present context of the COVID-19 pandemic, to deny people essential rations (or other government benefits) for being unvaccinated would only exacerbate the existing food and nutrition crisis. But are such steps actually legal?

Can the government deny rations to unvaccinated citizens?

At present, rations are provided by the government through the Public Distribution System under the National Food Security Act, 2013. Under the Act, state governments can identify households who are eligible for rations to be covered under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana scheme or under the targeted Public Distribution System. For both of these components, the criterion for eligibility is economic, i.e. determined by the household’s income level. The Act does not provide for any additional criteria such as the status of vaccination to decide who is an eligible beneficiary.

Additionally, on May 11th, 2020, the government issued a clarification with respect to Aadhaar linking of ration cards, in which they argued that beneficiaries cannot be denied food grains under the National Food Security Act, 2013 because of non-linkage with Aadhaar, network/connectivity issues with the authentication system, or any other technical issues. As stated by the Ministry:

“During the current crisis situation, a pragmatic approach is needed so that no poor or deserving person or family is denied access to food grains.”

The Ministry's argument is equally applicable in the case of vaccines, as similar issues with connectivity may appear when a citizen’s vaccination status is authenticated at the PDS shop.

Furthermore, on 15th July, 2021, the Manipur High Court had ruled that denying people their livelihood  by linking their employment to their vaccination status is illegal. The case was in response to a notification by the Manipur Home Department which had meant that those desiring work under NREGA and other government projects would need to be vaccinated. The court had stated that:

“It is for the State Government to dispel such fears by educating people as to the advantages of getting vaccinated and erase their apprehension of the adverse consequences of getting vaccinated. Without addressing this issue, the State cannot seek to impose conditions upon the citizens so as to compel them to get vaccinated, be it by holding out a threat or by putting them at a disadvantage for failing to get vaccinated.”

On 24th June, 2021, the Meghalaya High Court had passed a similar judgement, noting that forcing or coercing people to be vaccinated went against the “fundamental purpose of welfare”.

People shouldn’t be denied essential government benefits during a pandemic!

We have already written about the travails of the COWIN platform. In our joint statement with multiple civil society bodies on 11th May, 2021, we had stated highlighted several issues, including:

  • Leaving the pricing of vaccines to the free market and the responsibility of vaccination of a large population to states who are low on resources and where negotiating capacity can impose a barrier to peoples’ access to vaccination.
  • Mandating online self-registration for vaccination without a walk-in facility will further entrench inequities in access to the vaccine. Only those with access to the internet and who can operate an app-based system will be able to register themselves, or will register themselves ahead of others, leaving the poor and vulnerable behind, creating an enormous digital divide in access to the vaccine.

Many of these issues still persist, and so it is unfair to impose vaccination as a prerequisite for receiving government benefits. Thus, it is our earnest hopes that central, state, and local administrations refrain from using such draconian measures to further India’s vaccination targets, especially since nutrition levels are still below pre-pandemic levels and a large population say they are worse off in terms of both the quantity and quality of food consumed compared to pre-pandemic times. Vaccines are also still either not in adequate supply or not easily accessible. Thus, we urge the government to not make vaccination compulsory for the receipt of government benefits, and instead focus on improving vaccine supplies and reducing vaccine hesitancy through other means, so that the citizens of India do not go hungry in such devastating times.

Important documents

  1. IFF’s letter to the Deputy Commissioner MR Ravi of Chamarajanagar Karnataka regarding ‘Linking the vaccination status of NFSA beneficiaries to their ration entitlements’ (link)

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