COVID-19 vaccination: Marginalised sections would bear brunt of digital divide, say SC
New Delhi: A vaccination policy exclusively relying on digital portal CoWIN for inoculating those aged between 18 to 44 years would be unable to meet its target of universal immunization due to digital divide and the marginalised sections of the society would bear the brunt of accessibility barrier, the Supreme Court has said.
The apex court said such policy could have serious implications on the fundamental right to equality and the right to health of persons within the age group of 18 to 44 years.
It also noted that even the digitally literate are finding it hard to procure vaccination slots through CoWIN portal.
The top court also wanted to know from the Centre whether it has conducted a disability audit for CoWIN website and IT application like Aarogya Setu to ensure that they are accessible to persons with disabilities and noted that it has been brought to its knowledge that CoWIN platform is not accessible to persons with visual disabilities and the website suffers from certain accessibility barriers.
A special bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud referred to the annual report of Common Service Centres (CSC) for 2019-20 published by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, another report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and also a survey on Household Social Consumption: Education’ conducted by the National Statistics Office between July 2017-June 2018.
It is clear from the above statistics that there exists a digital divide in India, particularly between the rural and urban areas. The extent of the advances made in improving digital literacy and digital access falls short of penetrating the majority of the population in the country. Serious issues of the availability of bandwidth and connectivity pose further challenges to digital penetration, said the bench, also comprising Justices L N Rao and S R Bhat.
The bench made the observations in its May 31 order, passed in the suo motu case on distribution of essential supplies and services during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was uploaded on the apex court website on Wednesday.
A vaccination policy exclusively relying on a digital portal for vaccinating a significant population of this country between the ages of 18-44 years would be unable to meet its target of universal immunization owing to such a digital divide. It is the marginalized sections of the society who would bear the brunt of this accessibility barrier, it said.
The bench noted that in its April 30 order, the court had highlighted the concerns relating to the ability of marginalised members of society to avail COVID-19 vaccination, exclusively through a digital portal in the face of a digital divide.
It also noted that according to the annual report of CSC for 2019-20 published by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, while there are 2,53,134 Gram Panchayats in India, only 2,40,792 are covered with at least one registered CSC as on March 31, 2020.
It directed the Centre to clarify whether “it may not be feasible to require majority of our population to rely on friends/NGOs for digital registrations over CoWIN, when even the digitally literate are finding it hard to procure vaccination slots and said over-crowding may also arise at CSCs in rural areas where people would have to visit constantly in hope of a vaccine slot opening up.
Certain vaccination centres may be earmarked for on-site registrations for the population aged between 18-44 years without the existing conditions prescribed in the circular dated May 24, 2021, potentially with a view to prioritize those with co-morbidities/disabilities/other socio-economic vulnerabilities, it noted.
Alternatively, whether specific daily quotas may be introduced for on-site registration at each centre or specific centres, it asked.
It directed the Centre to clarify that this policy may not allay the issue of hesitancy which may arise from approaching a state authority, such as the district immunization task force, to obtain registration for the vaccination and also on whether on-site registration with self-attestation of age to ensure widespread vaccination can be provided.
It sought clarification that CoWIN platform and other IT applications like Aarogya Setu’ should be made available in regional languages and also on the timeline for ensuring the availability of the platform in multiple regional languages.
The bench asked the Centre to clarify on conducting a disability audit for CoWIN website and IT application like Aarogya Setu to ensure that they are accessible to persons with disabilities.
The court noted CoWIN platform is not accessible to persons with visual disabilities and the website suffers from certain accessibility barriers which should be addressed.
The bench noted some of these issues, audio or text captcha is not available, the seven filters which include age group, name of vaccine and whether the vaccine is paid or free, are not designed accessibly and can be addressed.
While visually challenged persons can determine the number of available vaccine slots, one cannot find out the day those slots correspond to. This can be resolved by ensuring that table headers correspond to associated cells .
It noted keyboard support for navigating the website is absent and adequate time should be given to disabled users to schedule their appointment without the possibility of being automatically logged off.
Accessibility protocols, such as use of appropriate colour contrasts, should be adhered to, the bench said.