Maharashtra’s Women and Child Development Minister Pankaja Munde on Sunday attempted to wash her hands off the controversy involving the Rs 6,300 crore Take Home Ration (THR) contracts for supplementary nutrition to children and lactating mothers enrolled in the daycare centres or Anganwadis in the state.
Munde has been facing fire from the Opposition, which has demanded her resignation, after the Supreme Court, in an order dated February 26, struck down a 2016 tender, which had been the basis of awarding the food contacts.
With the apex court observing that some of the pre-qualification conditions incorporated in the tender were “arbitrary” and “favoured big players and industrialists” at the expense of the local women self-help groups (SHGs), who are engaged in the supplementary nutrition business, the opposition in Maharashtra has upped the ante against the Devendra Fadnavis government, and Munde in particular, in the run-up to the 2019 national elections.
Earlier, Munde’s ministry had floated the consolidated tender on March 8, 2016, after securing the state cabinet’s nod for it on February 23 that year. The tender was for allotting contracts for the supply of THR to anganwadis for a period of five years, which could further be extended by two more years with a total worth estimated at Rs 6,300 crore.
On Sunday, while defending her department’s actions, Munde pointed a finger at the Centre. “The tender was floated on the basis of the guidelines issued by the Centre, and the SC directives issued from time-to-time,” she said in an official communication issued by her ministry on Sunday.
The SC, in its order, has come down heavily on the state government for “wrongly representing” to it that the Centre had issued specific recommendations for the use of extrusion-based technology for the manufacture of the THR mixtures, when “no such recommendations existed”.
The petitioners before the court — Vaishnorani Mahila Bachat Gat — had objected to the insistence of the fully automated technology, arguing that it effectively ruled out the participation of local women SHGs, and created a monopoly of sorts for a handful of big companies.
While the SC order concurred with this viewpoint, Munde stood her ground. Munde also cited a letter from Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, dated September 3, 2015, to defend her actions. The Indian Express possesses documents that show that Munde had approached Gandhi for advice over the issue on July 9, 2015, in the backdrop of objections raised by the Commissioners of the Supreme Court on May 15, 2015, cautioning the state against making the extrusion technology compulsory for THR.
On September 3, 2015, Gandhi wrote back to Munde, saying, “Dear minister, my attention has been brought down to the letter wherein the Maharashtra government has sought the advice of the central government for the use of extrusion-based technology for the preparation of THR under the ICDS scheme. I’ve also been informed that a decision on providing the supplementary nutrition through THR is held up in the state for want of this advice.” While contending that “it is a matter of deep concern that the state government is unable to take a decision on the issue and needs the advice from the Centre,” Gandhi had asked the state to refer to the instructions that the ministry had issued, vide circulars dated September 26, 2014, and June 23, 2015.
But just as Munde stressed that the decision to insist on the specific technology was taken following Gandhi’s communication, the Union Ministry, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court dated August 6, 2018, said “it is incorrect to say that it had advocated use of one particular technology, and that the Centre had only made it clear that nutrition and hygiene standards laid down in various orders of the Supreme Court and the centre’s operational guidelines must be followed”.
She further argued that before the tender was floated, the terms and conditions for it were cheated and finalised by a high-level committee of bureaucrats, headed by the state’s then Additional Chief Secretary (Finance). Munde further claimed that Chief Minister Fadnavis, and the state cabinet, had approved the floating of the tender.
The apex court also objected to the state’s decision to enhance the area of supply for food contracts by forming 70 blocks at the district level. An essential condition of the tender stated that a supplier must have an annual turnover more than 25 per cent of the supply quantity.
Munde said that the court’s latest order was on the basis of the Centre’s revised guidelines adopted on August 6, 2018. She said that the court’s order should not be read as “a stricture against the government”, while maintaining that the “state government will abide by the court’s latest directives”.