Four years after a report commissioned by the Supreme Court in 2012 laid bare the nexus between contractors-officials-politicians in the lucrative take-home ration contracts in the state, three women’s groups indicted for acting as fronts for private contractors, have again been shortlisted by the Pankaja Munde-led women and child development department as eligible contenders for the new tenders.
These three tainted firms are among 52 others shortlisted out of 83 bidders in the first step of the two-tier clearance process by the department.
The Centre’s ambitious Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) aims to provide take-home rations (THR) — ready to cook mixes — to infants from 0 to 3 years, adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating mothers as supplementary nutrition. The cost of these tenders every year in Maharashtra alone works out to Rs900 crore.
The new tenders worth Rs6,300 crore (for seven years) issued by the department in March, are likely to be scrapped, with the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court asking the state government to quash one of the important clauses of the tender. The court has asked the state government to quash the clause that broke down these contracts into just 70 blocks. Earlier, in 2014, the tenders were broken into 543 blocks and given to over 300 self help groups. The petitioners had argued that this clause went against the principle of decentralisation as mandated by several former Supreme Court orders.
The three tainted groups shortlisted for second-stage clearance (site inspection of the unit by a technical committee) include Venkateshwara Mahila Audyogic Utpadak Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit, Maharashtra Mahila Sahakari Gruhaudyog Sanstha Ltd and Mahalaxmi Mahila Grahaudyog as well as Balvikas Bahuudeshiya Industrial Co-op Society. The list of the eligible groups had been put up on the ICDS website in June this year.
The bigger question is how these groups were found eligible even after a stinging report by principal advisor Biraj Patnaik to the commissioners of the Supreme Court in 2012, which exposed these groups to be fronts for private firms, which had systemically violated norms and court orders.
While Munde was not available for comment on Tuesday, despite several calls made. She had spoken to HT at length on the issue earlier. “I am in favour of complete transparency in the tendering process and have told the court to monitor it. The firms are being selected by appointing special financial and technical committees that will verify documents as well as inspect plants and machinery required for preparing THRs. The contracts will be given to those who fulfil all our tender conditions and provide hygienic, nutritious food. I don’t know which groups have been shortlisted.’’
Munde had spoken to HT earlier — before the court order was pronounced on Monday.
The apex court orders in 2004, 2006 and 2009 had repeatedly called for decentralisation of these food contracts to village and taluka level women’s self-help groups, village communities to make the process transparent instead of giving the job to contractors, middlemen, distributors and dealers.
Patnaik had reported that in the state, the largest chunk of THR contracts were being supplied by these three women’s groups on paper, but they in turn had leased the production of the food to private agro companies — Indo Allied Protein Foods Limited, Swapnil Agro and Paras Foods. The report revealed that the women’s groups were fronts for the companies that were controlled by politically influential contractors. The sub-committees under each of these groups included women relatives of the contractual firm owners.
The report pointed out, for instance, the proprietor of Paras Foods was Ulhas Pagariya, whose wife Neeta was a member of the sub-committee of women’s group Venkateshwara Mahila Audyogic Utpadak Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit, along with her two sisters-in-law. They were not members before 2009, when the apex court orders led to a change in conditions of the contract. The managing director of Nagpur-based Swapnil Foods was Satish Munde and his wife Vanmala and daughter Swati were both members of another sub-committee of Venkateshwara. There were similar links between Mahalaxmi Sanstha and Pune-based Indo Allied. The wife of the company’s director Ranjan Jadhav, was a member of the Mahalaxmi sub-group.
Patnaik had also questioned the quality of the THR being supplied through these groups, pointing out that their lab reports were suspicious and did not match the random tests showing the quality of food as inferior.