The state government has decided to move the Supreme Court to defend the contentious take home rations (THR) tenders worth Rs6,300 crore (for seven years) issued in March this year by the Pankaja Munde-led women and child development department.
The state’s move comes after the law and judiciary department said the government can challenge the high court order that had quashed an important clause for these tenders - effectively asking the department to re-tender the contracts.
In July this year, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay HC had set aside a clause that reduced the total blocks for giving contracts to 70, from the earlier 553 blocks. The court said it went against the directive and orders of decentralisation that the SC had insisted on in earlier orders in 2004, 2006 and 2009. (see box )
“The law and judiciary department has opined we can challenge the HC order on merit. We also want to move SC to get greater clarity in the entire matter, as there are conflicting SC judgements. While one judgement in a 2011 case sets high hygiene standards, calling for avoiding manual interface in producing the THR, another calls for greater decentralisation in the process. Both seem inherently contradictory. We had decentralised the process as much as possible, keeping our hygiene and safety criteria in mind,” said a senior minister, on the condition of anonymity.
Munde’s department stands accused of favouring big contractors, instead of local self-help groups, by increasing the size of tenders and setting conditions such as mandatory extrusion technology (fully automated) and in-house laboratories, conditions that will weed out self-help groups from the process.
Munde, however, has insisted her department’s focus is on providing hygienic food to the targeted population and the tender was worked out after surveying the eligible candidates in the state, which were not more than 70.
The HC had also upheld all the other tender conditions.
The take home rations - part of the Centre’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) - in Maharashtra have been controversial because, in the past, the entire tender process has been fudged to favour a few politically influential contractors who were given back door entries in the name of being women self-help groups.
A stinging report from the office of SC commissioners in 2009 had indicted the state government for an unholy nexus between officials, contractors and politicians in handing out the food contracts.
HT had reported in July that all three of these contractors indicted by the SC had been shortlisted as eligible by Munde’s department this year.
The reports also pointed out how Munde’s department had ignored the latest report and letter from Supreme Court Commissioner’s office in May 2015 saying the Shagun Manila mandal case in 2011 was being interpreted wrongly and THR tenders should be decentralised among local self help groups as in the case of Orissa and Kerala.
The confusion in ICDS THR also stems from the Centre’s women and child development ministry’s circular issued in 2014 that made a strong pitch for hygiene and food safety standards saying even contractors can be given an entry providing the food contracts on these grounds.