The controversy over multi-crore tenders issued by Pankaja Munde’s women and child development ministry to supply ready-to-cook food for 1.08 lakh anganwadis in Maharashtra has deepened. It has became evident that the government was divided on the issue.
While Munde’s ministry floated a single tender at the state level for procurement of the food item, records available with The Indian Express show that at least two other departments — finance and industries — had a contrary viewpoint that the proposed tender arrangements went against Supreme Court guidelines.
The ready-to-cook food supplied under the government’s Take Home Ration (THR) scheme is meant for 30 lakh infants and lactating mothers enrolled as beneficiaries of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). The proposal was to appoint institutions to supply ration to these beneficiaries for a five-year period, extendable to seven years. The tender’s collective worth is over Rs 6,300 crore.
The multi-crore tender is under the scanner after the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court on Monday was learnt to have called for quashing an essential tender clause, which divided the state into 70 blocks or sectors at the district level for handing over the food contracts.
While the ICDS commissionerate under Munde’s ministry, which brought out the tender on March 8, contended that the Maharashtra cabinet had approved the manner of procurement, documents show that senior bureaucrats in the industries and finance departments had strongly cautioned the government against it.
Earlier, in 2014, following a report from a court-appointed commission alleging several malafides in implementation of the government-funded supplementary nutrition programs, the Supreme Court had directed all state governments that “contractors shall not be used for supply of nutrition in Anganwadis and preferably ICDS funds shall be spent by making use of village communities, self-help groups (SHGs) and mahila mandals for buying of grains and preparation of meals at the local level”.
Documents reviewed by The Indian Express show that Maharashtra’s Principal Secretary (Industries) Apoorva Chandra and the then Additional Chief Secretary (Finance) Sudhir Shrivastav had contested the single state level bid and suggested decentralisation of the tender at the local level to meet the Supreme Court objective. “The objective of the SC is to involve village communities, self-help groups, and mahila mandals so that nutritious food can be made available at the local level. The objective may not be served if one or two agencies provide the nutritious food at the district level. It can be best achieved by involving local groups and village communities at the Gram Panchayat level or utmost a cluster of villages that may involve several such groups in an ICDS project,” Chandra had remarked on the cabinet note for the procurement. Shrivastav had echoed this viewpoint. Both had suggested inviting expressions of interest at the local level.
The High Court bench’s latest ruling comes in the wake of a petition by some SHGs, which contended that the centralised process and eligibility criteria designed for the tenders had been tailored to suit a cartel of big firms. One of the eligibility conditions is that the supplier must have an annual turnover ranging over 25 per cent of the supply quantity. The SHGs alleged that the move to draw up sectors at the district level was to enhance the area and quantum of supplies, which would automatically rule out SHGs and village communities on the grounds of financial eligibility.
Incidentally, documents show that both the industries and the finance departments recommended keeping the “area of supply small to satisfy SC guidelines.” The finance department had argued that the experience and financial criterion should be tailored to accommodate more SHGs and village communities.
As the Cabinet Minister, records show that Pankaja Munde approved the district-wise sector plan on February 19. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had then remarked that the proposal be put before the Cabinet, following which remarks from the two department secretaries were obtained. The Cabinet subsequently approved the proposal on February 23 even as certain senior ministers were believed to have cited apprehensions.
Munde is currently on a trip abroad and could not be contacted despite attempts.
On February 25, records show that the WCD issued a government resolution indicating that the Cabinet had taken the objections raised by the two senior bureaucrats on board, and had approved the proposal along with changes suggested by them. But four days later, the WCD withdrew this resolution, and issued a fresh one, which lacked a single word regarding objections of the two bureaucrats.
Vinita Singhal, Commissioner, ICDS, who is temporarily acting as WCD secretary, defended it saying, “We withdrew the previous GR since it was not as per the draft GR submitted to the Cabinet for consideration and approval. It was necessary to correct the mistake that had occurred inadvertantly. While it is true that the two departments had made certain remarks on the Cabinet file, the department had explained its stance on these. The Cabinet was satisfied with the explanation.”
Incidentally, on April 22, the High Court, while staying the finalisation of the tender, had directed Chief Secretary Swadheen Kshatriya to file an affidavit with regard to the process that was undertaken before and during the Cabinet meeting. The Indian Express possesses Kshatriya’s affidavit, which reiterates Singhal’s defence.
In 2013, when the previous Congress, NCP regime had last issued work orders in this regard, it had divided Maharashtra into 553 blocks. SHGs and village communities had been allotted the contract in 314 blocks, while continuing with supplies from existing contractors in other blocks where such groups could not be formed.
Singhal claimed that the decision to enhance supply area and restrict blocks to just 70 was taken on the basis of economic viability for the new technology prescribed for the supply. “The SC directive never specified the level of decentralisation. The government had taken a conscious decision in this regard,” she said.