The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) closed its ranks around its rural development minister Pankaja Munde, who is at the centre of a controversy over the Rs6,300 crore take-home ration (THR) tenders under the Centre’s ambitious Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
Munde, flanked with four cabinet ministers, including finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, revenue minister Chandrakant Patil, food and civil supplies minister Girish Bapat and newly inducted animal husbandary minister Mahadev Jankar (leader of Rashtriya Samaj Paksha and an ally of BJP) held a press conference on Monday to defend the her department’s stance on the tenders, terming the decisions as “collective responsibility” and not an individual one since the entire procedure for the tenders had been vetted by the cabinet.
Sources told HT that chief minister Devendra Fadnavis asked ministers to rally behind Munde to do a damage control on Sunday night.
“The CM took a briefing on this and the decision was to make government’s stance clear and back Munde. But a signal has also been given to her indirectly. It is a timely intervention to root out any scope of future wrong doing. The party top brass is clear that they will not tolerate a whiff of a scam from the state. So far, the department has done nothing, no tenders have been given. The high court order is also open to interpretation and has not passed stringent strictures,’’ said a BJP senior leader.
He also said Fadnavis was likely to now intervene in the procedure more actively than earlier.
Munde defended the tenders clarifying that the high court had also accepted the tender conditions and not quashed the tender even as the media had erred in interpreting the order.
“Our focus is on ensuring high-quality nutrition to infants, pregnant women and mothers. It is not about giving some one or another a contract. The tender conditions were drafted by a committee considering Supreme Court directives and guidelines laid down by the Ministry of Women and Child Development on food hygiene and quality,’’ said Munde.
She added that the state’s decision to have extrusion technology was upheld by the high court and the decentralisation of tenders would now be limited to those groups, who had adopted this technology.
“There is an attempt to defame the government for acts that have not been done. How can there be a scam when tenders have not been given out?,’’ asked Mungantiwar.
HT has reported earlier that these tenders had become controversial in the light of the state’s earlier history of giving out such contracts to politically influential contractors, who floated women’s groups as a cover up and at least three such groups had been shortlisted by Munde’s department in its first stage of clearance.
State seeks legal opinion
The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court set aside an essential tender condition for the lucrative take-home ration contracts last week
The order quashed the department’s decision to reduce the number of blocks for giving these contracts to just 70 from earlier 553 blocks, saying it did not meet the decentralisation criteria as laid down in the earlier Supreme Court orders
The order has also asked the department to reconsider the powers given to the commissioner to allot tenders in respect of 50 per cent of the project to any one women’s group and avoid creating a monopolistic situation
It, however, upheld all the other tender conditions, including the use of mandatory fully automated technology
The women and child development department has now sought law and judiciary department’s opinion on how to proceed with the high court order
While the department is insisting that the tenders are not scrapped, it will have to come out with a new tender notice if it increases the number of blocks from the existing 70
There is a section within the department that is keen on challenging this aspect of the order in the apex court so that the state has the right to decide the limit of decentralisation
What is the take-home rations tender controversy?
The take home rations refers to supplementary nutrition that is provided to the vulnerable population in the country – infants, pregnant women, lactating mothers and adolescent girls – under the Centre’s ambitious Integrated Child Development Scheme through network of ‘anganwadis’ or child care centres
The Supreme Court guidelines and earlier orders have stressed on decentralising the supply of these pre-cooked food mixes to self help groups at local level
The state government’s new tenders issued in March 2016 were challenged in the high court after several women’s self help groups said they were biased in favour of big contractors, including those who had been indicted earlier by the apex court
The state government has, however, said it has stressed on nutrition, infection free and hygienic food as per centre and apex court’s latest guidelines.