Maharashtra Women and Child Development Minister Pankaja Munde is facing allegations from the Opposition of not following norms for purchase of material for anganwadi schools. It has come to light that revised proposals for buying chikkis and ayurvedic biscuits worth Rs 80 crore were formulated, processed and approved on a single day on February 12.
Official documents with The Indian Express suggest “unusual haste” in approving contracts for purchase of chikkis and ayurvedic biscuits for infants and pregnant and lactating mothers without following the e-tendering process.
A letter from the Commissioner of the Navi Mumbai-based Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Vinita Singhal to Sanjay Kumar, Principal Secretary, Women and Child Development, Maharashtra, dated February 12, states that “based on instructions of the WCD Minister (Munde) and guidelines provided by the Principal Secretary (WCD) during a meeting dated February 12, orders to cancel all proposals sent previously for providing supplementary nutrition to infants and pregnant and lactating mothers were cancelled, and a fresh proposal is being placed for approval.”
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The fresh proposal was sent from Navi Mumbai-based office to WCD department that functions out of the new administrative building opposite the state secretariat building in South Mumbai, and then travelled to Munde’s office in the secretariat building the same day. Official documents confirm Munde cleared the proposal the same day.
WCD’s public information officer Seema Doke remarked in response to a Right to Information (RTI) query that the minister’s office hadn’t planned any meeting in this regard on February 12. “The minister held a discussion with the Principal Secretary and the ICDS commissioner in her office. No minutes of this are available,” the RTI reply states.
This raised eyebrows since Munde’s department altered the original note and it was approved. Sanjay Kumar, when contacted, admitted the decision to reject old proposals and formulate a revised proposal was taken during the discussions. Documents with this newspaper show that the purchase of chikkis worth Rs 75 crore had never been part of the department’s original proposal. “The decision was taken following discussions we held that day,” from additional grants made available by the Narendra Modi government for 20 districts.
Going by the original proposal submitted on January 17, 2015, Singhal’s office recommended ayurvedic biscuits and ladus for beneficiaries. It suggested a Rs 13.73 crore contract for biscuits, Rs 15.90 crore for rajgira ladus, and Rs.14.58 crore for peanut ladus. Her office recommended dates and tetra-pack milk, but pointed out rate contracts for these two did not exist, and approval from Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s office would be needed. Her office pointed out that the state finance department had stated that the department must place before them changes made to the supplementary nutrition before utilising additional central funds.
Official documents show Munde commented on this proposal first on February 7, when she told the department to check side effects of ayurvedic biscuits before processing the file. She also raised technical queries.
After discussions in her office on February 12, chikkis totalling Rs 75 crore replaced ladus, biscuit contract was limited to Rs 5 crore.
Official documents show no formal explanation was given either for replacing ladus or altering contract amounts, Kumar said on Friday that “during discussion with the minister, it was felt that infants would find ladus difficult to eat. Chikkis were more consumable at that age.” Pankaja Munde was not available for comment despite attempts. Her office when contacted, claimed that “the decision was a collective one taken by her, Sanjay Kumar, and Singhal.” An official who did not want to be named explained, “It is common knowledge that chikkis are more nutritious than biscuits. Justification for the change is not reflected in official documents.”
Munde has been justifying the “haste” as a “dynamic decision to save lapsing of central funds”. Senior government officials, on condition of anonymity, pointed out to norms that the central government grant, released in January, would not have lapsed at the end of the year. “Our understanding is that the funds would have lapsed. Anyway not utilizing central grants would have impacted our budgeting for the next fiscal,” Kumar said Munde’s office echoed his remark. “Non submission of certificate showing utilisation of grants would have impacted further release of central grants,” said an official at Munde’s office.
The Opposition is not convinced about the “unusual haste.” Congress leader Sachin Sawant, who lodged a complaint against Munde with the state anti-corruption bureau (ACB) said, “We (the Congress) always maintained that all of this is an act of blatant corruption, and it stems from the top. All those involved in decision making must be probed,” he said.
Munde’s staff said she could not be reached. Munde had travelled to Aurangabad on Friday afternoon. Munde had said on July 1 that she had not violated any rules. “I have not broken any rules. My intention was to not let the budget lapse and deprive children of supplementary nutrition. I have done no wrong. It is unfortunate I am being targeted for dynamic decisions. All charges are baseless and politically driven,” she had said.