Thiruvananthapuram: Emergency purchases for the public health sector in Kerala during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic are under a cloud of corruption. Political-official mafia deftly utilised this tough pandemic situation to their advantage and minted money like anything even as the public were hard hit by the catastrophe.
A close look at the purchase-related documents of the Kerala Medical Services Corporation Limited (KMSCL) has revealed the gravity of the loot made by the mafia. Corruption and irregularities were justified in the name of emergency purchase of products and equipment meant for containing COVID-19.
The issue of corruption at the KMSCL came to light once again, thanks to the internal rift in the state-government run entity.
An email dated November 30, 2021 which was widely circulated among the KMSCL staff with the title "Nellum Pathirum Thirichariyuka" — meaning 'separate the grain from the chaff ' — summed it all up. The email gives us a peep into the irregularities that took place in the deals entered into by the KMSCL. The letter alleged that the newly appointed General Manager of the Corporation was being given wrong advice by 'a group of devils'.
It is widely believed at least some people behind the circulation of this explosive letter were earlier transferred after the former State Health Minister relinquished his chair.
Shady appointments too
The email threw much insight into the irregularities in the appointments and purchases made by the corporation. A degree holder was made a sweeper and a diploma holder was posted as an Assistant Manager. The appointment of the wife of the gunman of the former Health Minister also found mention in the email. These were alleged earlier too.
The spread of the pandemic turned out to be a huge crisis for Kerala. The negative impact it had on the State's finances is unimaginable. The Health sector in the State mainly bore the brunt of it. In January, 2020, the first COVID-19 case was reported in Kerala when a woman living in China came to Thrissur and was tested positive. From then on, both the government and the public started taking extreme precautions. But on the other side, a handful of politicians and officials found it as a golden opportunity to loot public money.
Almost Rs 1600 crore has been spent by the KMSCL for buying medicines, various equipment and essential items such as sanitary products since March, 2020. There is no denying the fact that the whole purchasing would have taken a longer period had the Corporation taken the usual administrative route. Red tapism would have delayed the purchasing process.
The State Government used the provisions of the Disaster Management Act to buy equipment and essential products through KMSCL in the name of COVID-19 emergencies. But some corrupt officials took advantage of the situation while the political executive remained silent spectators. It is also alleged that the funds were pumped by the drug companies in some Assembly constituencies in the northern districts in the State for the election work of the candidates of the ruling coalition as a quid pro quo for KMSCL deals.
Price of PPE kits under scanner
During the first stage of the COVID-19 crisis itself, there were allegations that the PPE kits were purchased by the State Government for exorbitant prices. The then Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Muslim League leader MK Muneer raised this allegation in the State Assembly itself. It was pointed out that a PPE kit was bought for Rs 550 during the time of Nipah outbreak in Kozhikode. But, later during the outbreak of COVID-19 times, a PPE kit was bought by the Corporation for Rs 1,550. Of the total bulk purchase amount, Rs 9 crore was given as advance to the distributor.
A section of the officials opposed the purchase. Now, it has come out that there existed no such company. Though relaxation of many clauses for purchase during COVID-19 time could be justified, giving advance payment for purchase was unheard. Of the total Rs.1,600 crore purchase spree by the KMSCL, most of the deals were done without inviting bids and by giving advance payment. All these were done under the garb of emergency requirements.
After March, 2020, purchase orders for crores of rupees were issued from the office of the State Health Principal Secretary. Within days after the COVID-19 crisis loomed large, products such as bleaching powder, ventilator units worth Rs 15 lakh each and Covid detection test equipment were purchased. The Corporation sought from the government an allocation of Rs 301 crore for purchasing PPE kits and other essential items and Rs 306 crore for purchase of ventilators and COVID-19 detection equipment. The government accepted most of its recommendations.
Products from Malaysia to Kerala via England
It was during March-May 2022 that the preliminary discussions on gloves import were held. The decision to import gloves was arrived at during the time of Assembly polls. There was an emergency need for gloves as part of COVID-19 containment measurers. An order for purchasing one crore gloves was given to a supplier from Kazhakootam on May 31, without inviting tenders.
While having a close look at the deal, it was found that Vinyl Nitrile gloves were brought from Malaysia to England for use in hospitals. But when England refused to accept the stock for use, it was imported to Kerala. When contacted, the regulatory body of the UK, National Health Service, informed that it had no idea whether the UK purchased such products from Malaysia. The inferior quality gloves kept for destruction might have been imported to Kerala. If that is the case, it is crystal clear that there is a huge scam involved in this purchase.
Though the State Government issued an order on May 27, fixing Rs 5.75 as the maximum rate of a glove, the import order was given for a rate of Rs 12.15 per piece. The main agreement was that half of the total purchase amount should be given as advance. As per this agreement, Rs.6.07 crore was given to the supplier by the government.
On June 16, 20 lakh gloves were supplied. Though the assurance by the supplier was that 60 lakh gloves would be supplied by June 28, only 21.6 lakh pieces were supplied. But when the shortage was felt again for gloves in the State, the Corporation decided to purchase it from the domestic market.
When controversy erupted over the non-receipt of at least half of the gloves ordered through imports, the LDF Government, after taking over the seat of power for a second time, ordered the immediate freezing of any further imports. The government also conveyed its displeasure to the officials over the manner in which the purchase was undertaken.
But giving scant regard to all these objections, the officials gave permission to import the remaining 58.40 lakh gloves. Without even recording it in the stock register, the gloves were later dumped in the warehouse units of the Corporation. Now, it is understood that backdoor manipulations are done by a section of officials to pay the remaining amount to the supplier.
Many items procured by the Health Department during the COVID-19 lockdown period were that of inferior quality. A nurse working in Mananthavady District Hospital found a silver anklet in a PPE kit. Blood stains and hair were found in many of the PPE kits distributed in the medical college hospitals and district hospitals. But ignoring all such complaints from the officials and medical and para medical staff, the KMSCL repeatedly gave orders to the same company for the supply of products.
The equipment was brought to the district hospitals without even checking whether three-phase connection was available at the area where the equipment is installed. As a result, a number of equipment like oxygen plants and freezers were dumped in hospitals without any use. The ventilators which were given to private hospitals during the lockdown period for handling emergency situations, were later shifted to the district hospitals. But later these machines were found abandoned at hospitals. In district hospitals, the situation is such that there is now no space left for keeping existing beds.
Documents that got destroyed
The shocking incident was that most of the purchases on behalf of the KMSCL were done during the COVID-19 period from the private laptop of a top official of the Corporation. To our utter surprise, the details of many purchases were later not found available in the Corporation's main computer network. During the preliminary investigation it was found that almost 3,000 suh e-files were found destroyed. The State Government too became aware of the gravity of the irregularities when this news came out. The authorities claimed that the officials responsible for lapses were immediately transferred to Alappuzha, Malappuram and Kozhikode units.
The authorities have also confirmed that the IT Department has been entrusted with the job of checking the main computer network to detect any fraud. An outside agency was assigned to retract the destroyed files. The auditing has also begun in the Medical Corporation. Once it is over, more details on the irregularities and corruption in purchases may come out. But since it has come out that the political-official nexus had played a part in this corruption, it is doubtful whether the current investigation will be effective in unearthing the entire fraud. It is afraid that the political clout of the corrupt may scuttle a fair probe into the irregularities.