Unfit ambulances on road as state’s bid for new fleet meets opposition | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times

Unfit ambulances on road as state’s bid for new fleet meets opposition

Feb 07, 2024 06:08 AM IST

The state health department's ambulance service in Maharashtra, India, is facing controversy as it has failed to replace its fleet of 937 old ambulances.

MUMBAI: The state health department’s ambulance service launched a decade ago is functioning on a prayer today, as it has failed act on time to replace the fleet of 937 well past their prime.

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The fleet of 108-Maharashtra Emergency Medical Services ambulances was launched on February 1, 2014. The 10-year deadline expired on January 31, and the tender to bring on a fresh fleet issued in December is already mired in controversy, compelling the health department to put the expired fleet back on road.

Over the last 10 years, the service has handled over 9.5 million emergencies.

The state plans to replace the fleet with 1756 new ambulances. The new bid has attracted criticism from the activists and the opposition. Questions are being raised over the rise in the contract’s price of 9,000 crore on the service for the next decade; lack of transparency and delay in beginning the process, leading the government to withdraw the process.

The impasse has led the government to renew the contract of the existing operator, BVG India Limited, by three months. So, many of the ambulances on the road now have expired their life span, the equipment inside is old and some are in a compromised state.

According to an official from the Public Health Department, “The ten-year services of BVG ended on January 31. We pay the contractor 30 crore a month, which varies from month to month based on their performance which is gauged on the basis of number of vehicles, manpower and the response time.”

As the state government decided to increase the fleet from 937 to 1756 ambulances, the annual cost of operation, as per the bid documents, has gone up to 759 crore annually from the previous 360 crore. The 9000-crore spend over ten years has heckled experts as well as officials from the department.

Aam Aadmi Party’s state vice president Vijay Kumbhar, who has been following the tender procedure, has alleged that the state government has floated the agreement in dubious manner. “According to our information, the health department has already finalized an agency which has close connections with a powerful politician. Unfortunately, the main intention behind the tender procedure it to safeguard the interest of some people rather than offer service to people. Another question is why the state health department did not begin the bidding process well in advance when they knew the existing contract was going to expire on January 31,” said Kumbhar, questioning the government’s transparency.

“After we raised the issue, the original tender was extended, but the tender ID was changed. There is no clarity if the tenders have been opened after the extended deadline ended on January 24,” he added.

A senior official from the health department said the rise in the number of ambulances is aligned with norms set by the government of India. For a population of a lakh 1 basic Life Support (BLS) ambulance is marked, while for a population of five lakh one Advanced Life Support (ALS) is marked. He said, the extension has been given to the existing operator for three months, till April 30, 2024.

“The existing fleet has been working smoothly. We hope to rope in the new operator with new ambulances before this deadline expires,” said the officer.

Officials from the department have said that the finance and IT departments have objected to the new bid. The IT department has raised questions over the response time of the ambulances, while finance has raised objections over the rise in the quoted price for the operations.

“The operator who is expected to be appointed will have to invest just 800 crore against which he will earn ten times more in a decade. The bidding process is being implemented by violating the norms of the central vigilance commission,” said leader of the opposition Vijay Wadettiwar.

People pay the price

About 5% of the ambulances in the existing fleet are unable to run in their optimum state. “We get complaints from patients about the higher response time due to the non-availability of drivers or doctors in the ambulances – they are not paid their stipulated salaries. Operators make up tales as a cover-up, inconveniencing the public,” said Abhay Shukla, national convenor, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.

Dheeraj Kumar, commissioner, family welfare and director of National Rural Health Mission said, “We gave the approval for the bid on the PPP model on August 4 last year. Considering the large number of suggestions and recommendations, pre-bid was finalized on November 29 by the high-powered committee headed by additional chief secretary (finance). The bid was live till December 20, with an extension till December 28. We, got no response. A second short call was sought from January 4 to 13. According to the Bombay high court directives it was extended till January 24. After 48 working days only one bid was received. The technical evaluation is on.”

(A firm called Jai Ambe had moved the court for an extension for the second call of bidding to enable them to file, but the company did not submit its bid.)

He further added, “The existing fleet is over 10 years old and many ambulances have outlived their life. There is a need to change and improve the current fleet. We will modernize the 108 fleet to improve patient services.”

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