The state’s women and child development ministry, led by BJP’s Pankaja Munde, is likely to come under the scanner for tenders worth Rs6,300 crore (for seven years) to supply ‘take home rations’ under the Centre’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). This controversy comes close on the heels of the Rs206 crore chikki scam that the department had been hit with.
The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court on Monday, in its operative order, is learnt to have called for quashing of an essential clause of the contentious tender, which had divided the state into 70 blocks for handing over the food contracts. While none of the other tender clauses have been set aside, this one condition in itself could jeopardise the process for issuing contracts worth Rs900 crore annually to provide supplementary nutrition and put a question mark on the intention of the government.
The entire order will be issued on Tuesday.
Munde, who is currently in Singapore, did not respond to HT’s calls or text messages.
“The operative part of the order clearly said that the tender clause for the 70 blocks be quashed and set aside. As far as other tender conditions are concerned, they have been kept intact,’’ said Dyaneshwar Bagul, advocate for the self-help groups that are the petitioners in the case.
“The high court has also directed the state government to conduct a survey to find eligible self-help groups or mahila mandals at the project level and take appropriate decision,’’ Bagul said.
ICDS commissioner Vinita Singhal, however, in a statement, said that while the issue was heard in court on Monday, the order in the take home rations tender had not yet been finalised or put on the court website. The news being reported on the order is not factual, the statement said. “The minister herself had requested the court to monitor the bidding process, to make the entire process transparent. Once the court issues the order, the department will immediately do the needful,” Singhal said.
The controversy over supplementary nutrition meant for infants from 0 to 3 years, pregnant and lactating mothers has been brewing since last year after local self-help women’s groups alleged that the government’s tender issued in March was aimed at pushing them out to in favour of big contractors. And that it was going against the grain of Supreme Court orders in 2004, 2006 and 2009, which called for decentralisation of such contracts through local women communities at the village level.
In March, this year the department issued its tenders for the 70 food contracts, two for 35 districts based on its target urban and rural population. Before this, the contracts were broken into 543 blocks and given to 314 women self-help groups. This year, it was to be reduced to just 70 blocks with the ICDS commissioner having rights to give one group more than two or three contracts.
The writ petition in the Aurangabad high court had been filed by a self-help group based in North Maharashtra and Marathwada, seeking to quash the tenders.
The lucrative food contracts provided by the state have a murky history with a stinging report from principal advisor Brij Patnaik to the office of commissioners to the Supreme Court in 2009, which pointed to a nexus between officials, contractors and politicians in hijacking this process. The report had spoken of how three women’s groups had been used as fronts to give back door entry to three big contractors. These tainted three women groups were found eligible once again in the initial screening process (total 52 groups were shortlisted so far) carried out by the department in June.