In fresh trouble for BJP minister Pankaja Munde, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court Monday struck down tenders worth Rs 6,300 crore issued earlier this year by the women and child development department headed by her for supplying Take Home Ration (THR) as supplementary nutrition at day care centres (anganwadis).
The court was hearing a writ petition filed by some women self-help groups (SHGs) claiming that Munde’s department had tweaked the tender conditions to favour a cartel of big companies.
According to government records, the department floated the tenders on March 8 this year. But the state government suffered a setback when the HC stayed awarding of the multi-crore contracts on April 22 after about 25 SHGs petitioned against it.
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Alleging that the tenders were tailored to suit the alleged cartel, the SHGs contended that the department had also flouted guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in 2013 regarding the procurement and supply of THR.
In May 2013, the Supreme Court, while hearing another matter, had ruled that the contracts awarded under the scheme had to be decentralised. While Maharashtra has about 90,000-odd daycare centres, these were to be divided into 553 different projects, each of which would have a separate contract for the THR supply so that women employed in local SHGs get employment and locally preferred nutritional items are supplied.
The petition filed by the SHGs had argued that the department, defying the SC order, had proposed centralisation of the contracts at the district level while bringing out the tenders this year, making it difficult for the SHGs to participate. Two tenders — one for the urban belt, and another for the rural belt — were floated for each of the 35 districts.
The petitioners had further argued that the financial and the work experience criteria for eligibility to bid had been tweaked to favour the cartel, and so was the supply technology that was prescribed.
While the court’s detailed order was yet to come out, both the petitioners and the government representatives confirmed that the entire tender process had been set aside. While Pankaja Munde, who is in Singapore to attend a global water summit, remained unavailable for comments, a senior department official who did not wish to be quoted said the government would react after studying the detailed order.
The Congress, however, took the opportunity to intensify its offensive against Pankaja Munde. Party leader Sachin Sawant said, “Monday’s court order further proves that a mafia of contractors was running Munde’s department.” The Congress has demanded Munde’s resignation and a CBI probe into the matter.
Sources in the BJP said the latest controversy could not have come at a worse time for Pankaja Munde. The minister had earlier kicked off a storm when she took to Twitter making her displeasure public after Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis divested her of two key portfolios. Munde’s supporters staged demonstrations against Fadnavis Sunday, burning his effigy. The sources said this did not go down well with the BJP top brass. In damage control mode, Pankaja Munde tweeted again, denying that she was “displeased” and requesting her supporters to maintain law and order.
Even as the BJP was attempting to put an end to the portfolio controversy, the fresh row has handed the Opposition more ammunition.
In June 2015, Pankaja Munde had courted controversy following allegations of irregularities in contracts for chikki and other food items purchased by her department for anganwadis. The CM had defended her at that time.