A war of words ensued between Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, after Sisodia accused the latter of “brazen corruption” under the “pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
At a press conference in Delhi on Saturday, the AAP leader alleged that the Assam government had given contracts to companies owned by Sarma’s wife and son’s business partners for a supply of PPE kits above the going market rates during the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. Sarma was then the state’s health minister.
Sisodia’s statements were based on a series of reports by Delhi-based news website The Wire, in collaboration with Guwahati-based portal The Cross Current published earlier this week, which alleged that companies linked to Sarma’s wife, Riniki Bhuyan Sarma and his “close” business associates received contracts for emergency medical supplies (including PPE kits and hand sanitisers) at a much higher price than the going rate, and without following a proper tender process. The allegations were based on RTI replies from the state’s National Health Mission (NHM).
Following the accusations, Sarma hit back at Sisodia, saying he would file a defamation case against him. Defending his wife, Sarma said that she had “donated” the kits, and did not “take a single penny”. “At a time when the entire country was facing the worst pandemic in over 100 years , Assam hardly had any PPE Kits. My wife took the courage of coming forward and donating around 1500 free of cost to the govt to save lives” Sarma tweeted.
In the same thread, he alleged that Sisodia refused his calls to assist stranded Assamese people in Delhi during the pandemic. “You refused my multiple calls to help Assamese people stuck in Delhi. I can never forget one instance when I had to wait 7 days just to get a Assamese covid victim’s body from Delhi’s mortuary” Sarma wrote. “Stop sermonising and I will see you soon in Guwahati as you will face criminal defamation,” he added.
The Wire report had said that when Sarma’s wife’s company could not supply the 5,000 PPE kits as per the quantity specified in the order, it was cancelled by NHM, and later, 1,485 PPE kits were presented as part of the firm’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The other company — where Sarma’s son is a business partner — was not able to “complete” the supply order too. Citing the report, Sisodia said that despite the other firm not being able to meet the supply, another supply order was given to it at an even higher rate of Rs 1,680.
In his address, Sisodia said that at the time when the orders were placed, the Assam government was already buying PPE kits at Rs 600 from another company. “But the companies owned by his wife and son’s business partners got the contract at Rs 990 a piece,” he alleged. “The BJP talks a lot about corruption of Opposition politicians, but I want to ask them if they consider this (Sarma’s case) corruption or not,” Sisodia said, referring to the recent arrest of AAP leader Satyendar Jain by the Enforcement Directorate in an alleged disproportionate wealth case as “bogus.”
Responding to Sarma’s tweeting, Sisodia attached a purported picture of the contract. “Are these documents lying?” he asked.
To which, Sarma responded, accusing Sisodia of “cherrypicking” and showing “half the document trail”.
“At that point of Covid wave, we in Assam did not have any single PPE kit. After hectic efforts, my wife managed to bring in a few kits to save previous lives. Although the NHM issued order, the company raised no bill and the kits were gifted to the Govt. Not a single penny was transacted, where is the corruption?” Sarma asked.
He added: “Due to acute shortage then, every government including yours waived tender process for PPE kit and went for direct purchase. Don’t cherry-pick from half the documents. Have the courage to put all the facts.”
Earlier on Saturday, Assam government spokesman and minister Pijush Hazarika had also refuted the allegations. Hazarika, who was then the state’s junior health minister, said that “not a single paise” was spent by the government on the PPE kits.
”During an emergency situation, it is not possible to follow the general rules and regulations. The Cabinet had taken a decision that a committee will be formed and if its members gave the nod to buy the necessary kits and equipment to deal with the situation, then it can be bought,” news agency PTI quoted Hazarika saying.
“Accordingly, orders for PPE kits were placed with 35 firms and finally only nine firms could supply them to the government. An order of only Rs 85 lakh was placed with the firm referred to by the portals,” he said, adding that some PPE kits were arranged under corporate social responsibility (CSR), but not a “single paise” went from the government. ”So how can a scam or a scandal take place ?” Hazarika asked.