Little did Pankaja Munde, Maharashtra’s Minister for Women and Child Development imagine that the sweet chikkis meant for poor, malnourished and under-privileged schoolchildren could turn out politically fatally bitter for her. She is now sucked into a whirpool of an alleged Rs 206-crore scam. Ten days ago, Pankaja’s office received a letter from Ahmednagar zilla parishad president Manjushree Gund complaining that the quality of chikki distributed among tribal students under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) was layered with clay. Little did Manjushree know that what she had discovered and revealed was just the tip of an iceberg. In what is the first scam of the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP-Shiv Sena ‘government with a difference’, it has come to light that Pankaja had cleared purchase of several items such as chikki, mats, dishes and workbooks for underprivileged children by flouting all rules and norms. She got all purchases cleared on a single day (February 13, 2015) through 24 Government Resolutions (GRs) that were hurriedly issued — a record in Maharashtra administration.
According to the rules, any Maharashtra government purchase above Rs 3 lakh has to be done through e-tendering. Fadnavis had banned purchases through the rate contract system in which material is purchased after negotiations on its rate. And any purchase above Rs 1 lakh must be completed through tenders. Workbooks for students were bought at a cost of Rs 5.6 crore from a Navi Mumbai-based firm, Jagatguru Printing Press. However, the cheque was issued to its owner Bhanudas Tekawade and not in the firm’s account. ICDS Commissioner Vinita Singal had approved purchase of water filters from a Nashik-based company, Everest, at Rs 4,500 per unit. Pankaja raised the price per unit to Rs 5,200. She ignored the fact that Everest did not have its own manufacturing plant and had outsourced the water filters from different companies, a violation of terms and conditions. Two GRs were issued for purchasing the same material — growth monitoring machine used to weigh malnourished children. Two contractors, Sai Hightech Products and Nitiraj Engineers, both from north Maharashtra, were awarded the contract at a cost of Rs 6 crore and Rs 18 crore, respectively.
Clay-layered chikki is the tell-tale example of Pankaja’s open complicity. The state’s former central purchase office commissioner Radhika Rastogi had denied permission in April 2013 to purchase chikki from a Sindhudurg-based NGO, Suryakanta Sahkari Mahila Sanstha. Rastogi had ordered the department to float a tender as the purchase cost was Rs 37 crore, much more than the Rs 3 lakh ceiling for a tender. Pankaja gave the contract to the same NGO for supplying chikki at a cost of Rs 80 crore, despite the details of the NGO’s manufacturing plant not being known. The purchases are seen as nepotism. The mad hurry in awarding 24 contracts on the same day without following rules clearly indicates that she wanted to award the orders to her favourite contractors.
As scams go, bypassing rules and norms on has been the well-known techniques of ministers. They have to violate rules in order to help interested parties profit from it and in turn help themselves gain a share of their profit. Defence in such cases is often flimsy, as is Pankaja’s. She says her department was “neglected” and she had taken some dynamic decisions to animate it. If there was further delay in taking decisions, she said, Rs 122-crore assistance from the Centre would have lapsed. Is her clarification satisfying? Did she have to animate governance in her department only by killing the fair procedures of governance? Why did she wait for the expiry time of central assistance to take her decision? Why didn’t she follow the government’s e-tendering route? Her attempts to tide over popular umbrage and draw sympathy toward herself with emotional statements – “I am yet to come out of the shock of my father’s death” and “I am now attending to my ailing son” – are pathetic, to say the least. She has indeed much to explain to the soul of her father who must be tormented by her brazen violations. And we have full sympathy with her ailing son. At the same time, we have full sympathy also for the lakhs of poor children whose mothers must be cursing her for bypassing all rules to provide their children clay chikkis and substandard or non-existent stationery.
Fadnavis has no choice but to remove Pankaja from the ministry and order a CBI inquiry. Her continuance in the office she holds will hamper fair investigation as the officials would not feel free to co-operate with the investigators and provide them evidence. It is sad the youngest minister in Maharashtra cabinet chose to be the queen pin of a scam, and so early in her political career. It makes us sadder to think that we have little hope of getting a corruption-free government even with younger generations holding ministerial offices. Sad scene for the country, indeed.