SC asks Centre to address issue of digital divide in registration for Covid vaccinations; says policymakers must show deference to Court

THE Supreme Court Monday flagged the “digital divide” in the registration process for the Covid19 vaccine via the government’s CoWIN portal.

“You keep on saying the situation is dynamic but policymakers must have their ears on ground. You keep on saying digital India, digital India but the situation is actually different in rural areas. How will an illiterate labourer, from Jharkhand get registered in Rajasthan? Tell us how you will address this digital divide,” Justice Chandrachud said to Solicitor General(SG) Tushar Mehta in reference to the portal which requires access to the internet and mobile for registration.

‘How will the government ensure that migrant workers are able to get vaccinated? There is no digital literacy even today in rural areas. I am the chairperson of the e-committee and I know how it is,” Justice Chandrachud, who was heading a three-judge bench with Justices L Nageswara Rao and Ravindra Bhat, said.

SG Mehta submitted villagers could go to computer centres and register.

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There were common service centres [“CSC”] which had a digital platform to be used by the people, Mehta said. “These CSCs and their infrastructure is widely and effectively used in rural areas for various purposes and is found to be an effective module taking the development to the grass root levels. This provides access to the internet to a vast variety of persons who may not be adept in using it or may not have direct access to it”, he said, reading out from the government affidavit.

In response the court wondered whether expecting people in rural areas to use CSCs was even practical, to which Mehta said permitting walk-in vaccination/registration could result in overcrowding at the vaccination centres, defeating the very purpose of vaccination.

“Any such overcrowding is effectively avoided due to online registration as different time slots are given in advance to each of the applicants after online registration to ensure that at any given point of time, crowding in the vaccination area is avoided”, Mehta read out from the affidavit.

The Supreme Court had on a previous occasion expressed apprehension that persons who did not have access to digital resources because of the mandatory requirement of registration over the CoWIN for persons in the age group of 18-44 years, would deprive a large class of citizens of vaccination.

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The Centre had informed the court that those who did not have access to digital resources could take help from family, friends, NGOs, and Common Service Centres (CSC), etc.

Dissatisfied with the response, the Supreme Court today remarked that policymakers must show some flexibility.

“Our arms are strong enough to come down if we see there is non-compliance. We had prima facie given our observations earlier, but you have not come out with changes”, Justice Chandracud told Mehta.

Smell the coffee, see what is happening across the country and amend the policy, the judge said.

The Central Government on May 28 by way of a press note had claimed that media reports alleging CoWIN was creating digital divide were unfounded and baseless.