With polls now just weeks away, the Bengal government wants to provide coronavirus vaccines “free of cost to all people… to make the election safe” and has requested the centre’s support in purchasing the required number of doses “on top priority basis”.
On Wednesday afternoon Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to point out that while government and parastatal employees who will be involved in the conduct of the election were being vaccinated, lakhs of voters were not.
“West Bengal… being an election-going state… we are required to reach out to every government and parastatal employee on an urgent basis to make the election safe. The worrying point is… people in general will be forced to go to polling stations without vaccination,” Ms Banerjee wrote.
“We feel it is equally important to reach out to them with a rapid vaccination programme immediately (in the) interest of health and well-being of all concerned,” she added.
The Chief Minister asked the Prime Minister to “instruct appropriate authorities so the state can purchase vaccines… on top priority basis… to provide vaccination free of cost to all the people”.
Bengal has a population of around 10 crore and the cost of free vaccinations may be as much as Rs 5,000 crore, according to some estimates.
It is also one of 10 states to which the centre today rushed special teams to contain a surge in fresh cases. These teams are to work closely with state officials to establish why cases are rising.
Last month Ms Banerjee made a similar announcement – that her government would provide vaccines free of cost – and irked the BJP, which is the principal opposition in her state.
BJP leaders accused Ms Banerjee of politicising the distribution of vaccines before elections, pointing out that the centre had already said the shots would be free for three crore healthcare staff and frontline workers who were prioritised in the first round of vaccinations.
The BJP accused her of jumping on the centre’s promise to score brownie points with voters.
This was after the BJP was made an identical promise in October last year – free Covid vaccines for the people of Bihar ahead of Assembly elections there. Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman shot down criticism of that promise, saying it only reflected what the party would do if it won polls.
The Election Commission later ruled the promise was not a violation of the Model Code.
Earlier today Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said the second phase of vaccinations – in which around 27 crore people over 60 and those over 45 but with illnesses – would begin March 1.
According to Health Ministry data there are around 3,400 active Covid cases in Bengal.