The government on Saturday waived customs duty on the import of COVID vaccines as well as medical grade oxygen and related equipment as the nation battled its worst health crisis with a 'tsunami' of infections setting a new world record for cases for the third consecutive day.
The Centre also directed customs officials to clear all import consignments, including life-saving drugs and oxygen equipment, used in COVID treatment on the highest priority.
In a statement, the finance ministry said 10 per cent basic customs duty on COVID vaccines as well as the duty and health cess on import of oxygen and oxygen-related equipment has been waived for three
Medical oxygen attracts 5 per cent import duty, while the same for vaccines is 10 per cent.
India reported a record 346,786 new infections on Saturday, bringing its total to 1.66 crore. Deaths also rose by a record 2,624 to total 189,544.
The decision to exempt customs duty was taken at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to boost oxygen availability in the country, the Finance Ministry said.
Separately, the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs said field formations have been directed to clear life saving drugs and oxygen equipment consignments on the highest priority.
Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal also said in a tweet that in another step towards fighting COVID-19, customs will expedite clearances for import consignments relating to the pandemic to ensure
critical equipment and medicine can reach on time.
The government had previously waived customs duty on imported Remdesivir injections and the drug's active pharmaceutical ingredients to boost supplies.
"In order to augment their production and availability and to meet the rising demand, it was decided to grant full exemption from Basic Customs Duty and health cess on import of the following items related to
oxygen and oxygen related equipment for a period of three months with immediate effect," the finance ministry statement said.
It was also decided that basic customs duty on import of COVID vaccines be also exempted with immediate effect for a period of three months, it added.
The 16 oxygen and related equipment on which duty has been waived include oxygen concentrator along with flow meter, regulator, connectors and tubing, oxygen canister, filling systems, storage tanks,
cylinders, including cryogenic cylinders and tanks.
Ventilators (capable of functioning as high-flow devices) with nasal canula; helmets for use with non-invasive ventilation, non-invasive ventilation oronasal and nasal masks for ICU ventilators too have been
exempted from the import duty and health cess.
All these items so far attracted basic customs duty in the range of 5-15 per cent and a health cess of 5 per cent.
"This will boost the availability of these items as well as make them cheaper. The PM directed the Revenue Department to ensure seamless and quick customs clearance of such equipment," the statement said.
The exemption from import duty would help keep low the cost of overseas vaccines that are being eyed to supplement domestically made shots ahead of opening COVID-19 vaccination to all citizens over 18
years of age. Import duty would have made the imported vaccines costlier than the ones made by Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech.
While Russia's Sputnik V vaccines are due to arrive this month or by next month, manufacturers like Moderna and Johnson and Johnson have been urged to seek emergency use approval in India.
Earlier, the government waived import duty on Remdesivir injection, and also banned its export.
The government earlier this month allowed the emergency use of imported vaccines to curb the spread of coronavirus infections.
It has taken several measures in the last few days to improve oxygen and medical supplies. IAF planes are bringing in cryogenic oxygen tanks from Singapore. It is also transporting oxygen tanks in the country to reduce travel time.
Similarly, in a major decision, free food grains will be given to 80 crore Indians in May and June 2021.
"The PM emphasised that there was an immediate need to augment the supply of medical grade oxygen as well as equipment required for patient care both at home and in hospitals. PM stressed that all
ministries and departments need to work in synergy to increase the availability of oxygen and medical supplies," the statement said.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and other key officials attended the meeting.