Assam CM urgent PPE orders COVID-19
Chief Minister Himanta Bishwa Sarma. (File image)

Guwahati: A report by The Wire and Cross Current based on a series of Right to Information replies have stated that the Assam government placed four COVID-19 related emergency medical supply orders to three firms owned by Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s wife and his family’s business associate.

The report also states that these orders were most likely without following a tendering or quotation process. 

As per the report published jointly by The Wire and Cross Current, JCB Industries which is owned by Riniki Bhuyan Sarma, wife of Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was tasked with the urgent supply order from the state health ministry. Himanta Biswa Sarma at that time was the health minister of the state and most of the COVID-19 related announcements during the lockdown were made by him. 

However, the report states that there was no history of the company supplying or producing medical equipment and safety gear. It was known to produce sanitary napkins however, it was granted an urgent work order to supply 5,000 PPE kits. 

However, this ‘urgent’ work order to deliver the PPE kits was issued to JCB Industries on March 18, 2020, and that too just days before the panic-triggering nationwide lockdown. The “21-days” long lockdown then was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the night of March 24, 2020, just on the evening when Assam was supposed to go for a seven days lockdown.

In addition, it was further reported that the RTI replies from the state National Health Mission (NHM) had shown that the health department issued ‘urgent supply’ orders to two companies – GRD Pharmaceuticals and Meditime Healthcare. Both these firms are said to be owned by the CM’s family’s business associate Ghanshyam Dhanuka.

The report also mentioned that Ghanshyam’s father Ashok Dhanuka is a director of the RBS Realtors (now Vasistha Realtors). Sarma’s son Nandil Biswa Sarma is currently a majority shareholder in this firm. 

The firms belonging to Dhanuka have been reported to be a been regular suppliers to the state health department even during the Congress’ reign in Assam. The Chief Minister was the health minister even then.

The RTI replies, which were based on filings by The Cross Current further revealed the fact that these companies failed to complete the supply orders marked ‘urgent’ by the government amidst the emerging public health crisis.

However, Dhanuka’s firm continued to bag more pandemic-related supply orders from the state government which were reported to be at a much higher rate than it had quoted earlier – to provide PPE kits. 

As per an RTI reply from NHM managing director S Lakhmanan’s office to The Cross Current, is was stated, “The government of Assam (had) notified instantly the state level, district level and medical college level procurement committee for the purpose (of) emergency procurement from all available sources either through nomination/quotation/tendering process in view of the countrywide lockdown from March 24, 2020.” 

Citing a “panicky situation” because of the lockdown “to gather all essential items on an emergency basis to Assam as most of the essential manufacturing unit(s) were located outside of the state”, the NHM director’s office said, “Preliminarily, most of the procurement was done in nomination basis/market survey in a topmost priority to save the human life as well as for the greater public interest to fight the pandemic and its prevention…(sic)”

The report further stated that the RTI replies comprising copies of 14 supply orders of NHM, including some marked ‘urgent’, attest to the fact that the state health department had issued four ‘urgent’ work orders between March 18, 2020, and March 23, 2020, to procure PPE kits and hand sanitisers even prior to the “panicky” situation that had set in due to the national lockdown.

However, the orders seemed to have been approved through nomination as the urgent supply orders issued by NHM nowhere mentioned that any quotation was sought for the work. 

The report further added, “One of the 14 pandemic-related work orders issued after the national lockdown did mention that the approval was based on that bidder’s quotation.”

As per the documents, JCB Industries was granted an ‘urgent’ supply order on March 18, 2020, to provide 5,000 PPE kits while Meditime Healthcare was also asked to ‘urgently’ supply 10,000 such kits on March 22, 2020. “A day later, on March 23, it was asked for another batch of 10,000 kits”, the report added.

GRD Pharmaceuticals in another order dated March 18, 2020, to supply 10,000 bottles of hand sanitiser, each containing 500 ml, called Handrub. These were produced at its Aathgaon unit in Guwahati. 

The report by The Wire added, “The RTI replies were received in response to an application by The Cross Current. The whole process took around six months, from the first application to follow up appeals and replies. The Wire deconstructed the responses to reach certain specific conclusions.”

The conclusions by The Wire were divided into points. The conclusions include:

  1. “Even though both JCB Industries and Meditime Healthcare were most likely granted urgent orders through nomination, they failed to complete their orders in spite of the procurement meant for urgent supply to address an emerging public health crisis.
  2. The NHM issued an ‘urgent’ supply order to JCB Industries for 5,000 PPE kits at Rs 990 per piece on March 18, 2020, while on the same day it bought PPE kits at the rate of Rs 600 per piece from another Assam-based firm, NE Surgical Industries.
  3. Meditime Healthcare was also issued two ‘urgent’ supply orders for PPE kits on March 22 and 23, 2020, at Rs 990 – the amount sanctioned to JCB Industries.
  4. That neither JCB Industries nor Meditime Healthcare could complete their urgent supply orders even after setting a much higher asking price for procurement of the PPE kits. In contrast, the NE Eastern Surgical Industries which had procured a similar order from NHM for 1,790 kits at Rs 600 per piece, could do so successfully on time.
  5. The urgent work order assigned to Sarma’s wife’s firm was cancelled on April 4, 2020, citing “failure in supplying the life-saving cover-all protection kit in time, required for treating the Corona-infected patients”. Her firm could supply only 1,485 PPE kits out of the 5,000 kits ordered by NHM. Curiously though, those 1,485 PPE kits received by the health department from JCB Industries in lieu of a government order against a set rate were soon presented to the Assam government as part of the firm’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). 
  6. The NHM managing director, N. Lakhsmanan, who wrote to JCB Industries a few days later cancelling the urgent supply order citing its inability to complete the order, also wrote on March 27, 2020, to the company, thanking it for supplying the same PPE kits under CSR.  
  7.  Significantly, as pointed out above, even though Meditime Healthcare could not complete its existing order by the health department, the firm was still preferred for future urgent supply orders after the lockdown for PPE kits at Rs 1680 per kit – a price higher than even its previous quotation of Rs 990 – and on the condition that the firm would deliver the goods at the New Delhi Assam Bhavan. The 14 supply orders that NHM shared through RTI replies with The Cross Current showed that only Meditime Healthcare had the privilege of delivering its COVID-19 related emergency supplies to the Assam government at New Delhi instead of the NHM’s warehouse at Narengi, Guwahati.”

NorthEast Now tried to reach current Health Minister Keshab Mahanta for comments on the topic but could not reach him on phone. His comments will be updated soon.

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