India's Supreme Court overturns mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi says the ruling will encourage vaccine hesitancy

A health worker inoculates a girl with a dose of the Covaxin vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination centre in New Delhi on April 10, 2022, after government announced the paid precaution dose against Covid-19 coronavirus to be available for everyone above 18 years of age at private vaccination centres. AFP
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India’s top court on Monday ruled that no person can be forced to get vaccinated and the constitution gives everyone the right to refuse vaccination, in a milestone judgement on the country’s Covid-19 policy.

A bench including Justices L Nageswara Rao and B R Gavai was hearing a petition on the mandatory inoculation policies introduced by some state governments, which barred unvaccinated people from entering certain public places.

"Considering bodily autonomy, bodily integrity is protected under Article 21. No one can be forced to get vaccinated. [But] government can regulate in areas of bodily autonomy," the bench said.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution gives protection of life and personal liberty to citizens.

The bench, however, said that the current vaccine policy was not “unreasonable”, as it was based on scientific evidence, but suggested that while infection rates are low, individuals should not be restricted from accessing public places and services.

The bench was hearing a petition filed by Dr Jacob Puliyel, a former member of the National Technical Advisory Group—the highest advisory body on immunisation in the country.

Dr Puliyel was challenging the mandatory vaccination policies of many state governments for employees travelling on public transport and for access to subsidised food grains.

He had also said vaccines were not adequately tested and sought the disclosure of clinical trial data and adverse events resulting from mass Covid-19 vaccination campaigns.

The Supreme Court directed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to publish reports on adverse effects caused by vaccines on a publicly accessible system.

The court also suggested that all authorities, including educational and private institutions, should review restrictions imposed on unvaccinated people.

"Regarding segregation of vaccine trial data, subject to the privacy of individuals, all trials already conducted and to be subsequently conducted, all data must be made available to the public without further delay," the court said.

Mr Modi’s government had argued that the petition was against national interest and would create vaccine hesitancy.

India has administered more than 1.89 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses since launching one of the world’s largest immunisation campaigns last January, figures compiled by the Health Ministry show.

It has been expanding the vaccine coverage and in recent weeks has opened vaccines for children above five years of age and allowed booster doses for all adults.

Updated: May 03, 2022, 10:23 AM