BATHINDA DISTRICT Health Officer (DHO) Ramesh Maheshwari has been suspended after a voice call recording of him allegedly demanding Rs 200 from a shopkeeper went viral on social media.
In the recording, Maheshwari was purportedly heard telling the shopkeeper — who allegedly requested the DHO not to take the bribe for the sake of personal relationship — that no one can be exempt from the system because if one person stopped giving bribe, the others will also stop and the system would collapse.
DHO Maheshwari also had additional charge as designated officer (DO) under the Food Safety Act. He was allegedly using his additional powers to collect Rs 200 from every shopkeeper per month in Bathinda district in return for passing the collected food items.
Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu took the decision to suspend the DHO and ordered a probe. A case has also been registered against him at Kotwali police station, Bathinda.
Nine years on, half the districts still don’t have full time DOs
Maheshwari was among 11 DHOs in the state who have additional charge as DO under the Food Safety Act because the Punjab government failed to appoint full-time DOs in the last nine years.
According to Food Safety and Standards Rules, 2011, according to which officers holding additional charge as DOs, are allowed to continue to hold additional charge for a year and it was subsequently extended from time to time through various amendments as the government repeatedly failed to appoint full-time DOs.
As per the last amendment dated January 13, 2017, the period for holding additional charge was extended up to August 4, 2019.
Maheshwari’s is not the only case.
Punjab Vigilance Bureau had arrested District Health Officer, Amritsar, Lakhbir Singh Bhagowalia over similar allegations of exploiting his powers as additional commissioner in May last year.
Vigilance ad also arrested DHO Barnala Raj Kumar over corruption allegations in December last year.
A 2016 RTI
Kuldeep Singh Khera, an RTI activist, had filed a petition in 2016 against the delay in appointment of DOs under the Act.
“Food security is most important in a country like India where food adulteration is rampant. There is a lobby in the health department which has not allowed appointment of full-time DOs for long because it is considered a money minting post. Recording of Ramesh Maheshwari makes it very clear that he was collecting Rs 200 from each shop in the district and now you can imagine how much money he was making. Do you think that higher officials in district didn’t know it? They knew everything that was going on and how people’s health has being compromised. Maheshwari has been suspended just because his recording went viral on social media,” alleged Khera.
“DHOs are doctors holding additional charge of designated officers. All the big districts — Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Mohali, Bathinda, Patiala, Gurdaspur, Barnala, Hoshiarpur, Ferozpur and Muktsar are running on additional charge. The bigger the district, the more the collection of bribe,” he added.
He further said, “Doctors often get eligible for the post after acquiring the rank of SMO in the last leg of their service. So some of them take it as an opportunity to make quick money for retirement. We can’t blame all but it has remained a modus operandi for many. Otherwise there is no reason to leave behind active practice and do a job where you will not be able to use your experience to heal a patient.”
FSSA also pointed out delay
After the writ petition by Khera, the Punjab government made new rules according to which half of the posts of designated officers had to be filled by promoting Food Safety officers (FSO) and other half by direct recruitment.
Half of the posts were filled with promotion, but the other half are still with DHOs.
Till recently, the state had only 30 FSOs against sanctioned posts of 60.
In a related reply to K S Pannu, Commissionerate Food and Drug administration Punjab, Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSA) said in a letter dated December 11, 2019, “At present Food Safety and Standard Authority of India (FSSA) is not considering to further extend the time period for holding additional charge of DOs. As such, the officers holding additional charge of designated officers appear to be irregular after August 4, 2019. However the Commissioner Food Safety may with the previous approval of state government appoint sub-divisional officer of area as designated officer on additional charge basis. As such by the full time DOs are appointed in Punjab, it is advised that the government may consider appointing sub divisional officers on additional charge basis as designated officer as a stop gap arrangement.”
Speaking to The Indian Express, Pannu said, “Earlier we had only 30 FSOs. Now we have recruited 24 new FSOs and they are undergoing training. We have written to the finance department to approve 30 more posts of FSOs. After we have enough staff at ground level, we will fill rest of the posts through promotion. Right now we can’t promote existing officers because of shortage of FSOs.”