Even as the issue of supply of sub-standard chikki continues to haunt Rural Development Minister Pankaja Munde, the BJP may find itself dragged into a fresh controversy, again involving the sweet.
This time it relates to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s plan to supply 15 tonnes of chikki every day to over 3 lakh children in the 1,194 schools run by the civic body.
Senior sources confirmed to The Indian Express that the BJP, which holds sway over the education committee in the BMC, has been pushing this plan even as the civic administration has sounded a word of caution.
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Compounding matters further for the BJP is that only one contractor — the Nagpur-based sweet and snack manufacturer Haldiram’s — has submitted a bid for a tender floated for awarding the work in June this year. Lack of competitive bidding is already one of the main charges raised against Pankaja Munde.
This comes at a time when Vidya Thakur, Minister of State, Food and Drug Administration, Maharashtra, has also ordered testing of all products marketed by Haldiram’s after the United States banned most snacks made by the company claiming that these products had been found to contain high levels of pesticides, mold, and bacteria salmonella.
Official documents accessed by The Indian Express show that the tenders for the supply of chikki in BMC schools were first floated in 2013.
They have since been called on four different occasions. But the civic administration, which has expressed reservations related to the stocking of the sweet and its quality, has deferred awarding a contract citing technical grounds.
Interestingly, records suggest that Haldiram’s has participated in the bid on almost all occasions. The plan is to provide 30 gm and 40 gm chikki bars to primary and secondary students daily as an alternative to flavoured milk, whose supply was discontinued by the BMC in 2012 following episodes of food poisoning.
Records also show that the civic administration resisted the demand from the political leadership initially, arguing that “adding more nutritious value to mid-day meal already supplied in schools” would prove more beneficial.
A report by the BMC-run BYL Nair Dental Hospital stating that consumption of chikki on a daily basis might harm a child’s dental health was also submitted.
Official documents also reveal that the tenders for the supply of the sweet as supplementary food to the students in Mumbai were first floated in 2013 and have since been refloated on four occasions, but the civic administration, which has reservations related to the stocking and the quality of the sweet that would be supplied, has raised technical grounds to defer awarding a contract.
But giving in to persistent demand from the political leadership, former municipal commissioner Sitaram Kunte however announced the appointment of a high-level panel, which eventually recommended that chikki be provided as supplementary nutrition to students.
Sources also confirmed that the Rs 70 crore budget was set aside in 2015-16 at the last minute following political pressure.
BJP’s Ritu Tawde, who heads the Education Committee, however, refuted claims that the BJP was alone driving the agenda.
“Corporators from all parties pushed for it. The civic administration was made to set aside a budget for the head in 2015-16 only due to collective demand from all parties,” Tawde said, adding that “chikki is a good supplementary diet for children as it is known to enhance the grasping power of students”.
For now, Additional Municipal Commissioner Pallavi Darade told The Indian Express that the civic body has extended the last day for the tender till July 16. “We are still hopeful of getting a better response,” she said.
Tenders floated in 2013 and 2014 were recalled after the civic administration disqualified the bidders on technical parameters — including lack of 100 per cent mechanised operations, and inability to emboss the brand name on the sweet to be supplied, among others.
Requesting anonymity, a senior civic official claimed that a senior BJP minister in Mantralaya too had lobbied for allotment of the contract through revival of the recalled tenders.
BJP’s group leader in the BMC Manoj Kotak, meanwhile, distanced his party from the controversy. “It is a matter of civic administration to decide what to purchase or what not.”