PMCARES, a “public charitable trust”fund created by the Prime Minister on March 28, 2020, has been facing strong criticism since its inception, not just by the Opposition parties but also by all those who believe in transparency of public funds.
Nobody knew for what and how the crores of rupees in this fund would be utilised, which was said to be a “dedicated national fund with the primary objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation, like posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A huge amount of money has flowed into this fund, with a large part of it collected by virtually forcing government employees, including medics, to shed a part of their salaries. The PMCARES fund in itself is extremely opaque with respect to its contributors as well as disbursal of funds.
Recently there were reports in the media that some ventilators were bought under this fund, and there are allegations of some irregularities in the purchase and quality of these ventilators. The alleged ventilator scam is part of the larger black hole that the PMCARES fund is. But, this article will restrict itself to the ventilator controversy, which shows the ugly face of the system in which profit-mongers have not even spared patients suffering from COVID-19.
According to media reports, Rs 2,000 crore was marked for the purchase of nearly 60,000 ventilators. As these were delivered in premier health institutions of the country, there was strong resistance from doctors over the quality of this life support system.
For instance, PGI Chandigarh doctors rejected 10 ventilators delivered to them on July 10 and said: “The machines bought with PMCARES fund were found to be ‘not effective’ and ‘faulty’.” Quoting a source from the hospital, a report said: “Doctors, pulmonologists, anaesthesiologists and intensive care experts carried out regular and mandatory checks on the ventilators. The majority opinion of the team was that the ventilators were not up to the mark. We cannot use these substandard machines and put patients, especially Covid-19 patients at risk.”
Likewise, the doctors in an Ahmedabad hospital, too, rejected the ventilators as these failed the trial test. In fact, there were reports alleging that a large number of COVID patients in the hospital had died because they were put on these ventilators.
Why is it that life-saving machines bought by using PMCARES funds are faltering? Can we deduce that the Prime Minister is part of the systemic crisis? We can deduce this from the PM’s statements time and again. One of the important pronouncements that he made was is that the pandemic crisis must be seen as an opportunity. This is proving to be a reality. There are opportunities galore for ruling party’s business friends, a majority of whom are traders and dealers, for using this period to maximise their profits. The alleged ventilator scam could just be a reflection of that.
Going by reports, it is shocking that factual checks and verification on the veracity of these machines and their effectiveness, which should have been carried out by government agencies, were instead done at the level of public hospitals.
These revelations came to light through an RTI enquiry, and that too not against the PMCARES, which is out of its ambit, but from other institutions that were supposed to manufacture/buy these machines. The RTI reply suggests a nexus between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its cronies.
Interestingly, these deals have been struck without due diligence, and bypassing the procedural protocol related to the purchase and testing of equipment. Also, there are indications of strong proximity of some of the business beneficiaries with the ruling party’s leadership, especially the Prime Minister.
For example, the connections between B R Shetty (one of the foremost beneficiaries of the PM’s-PPP scheme on imported ‘active pharmaceutical ingredients’ and drugs launched during the pandemic), a businessman in UAE and Jyoti CNC Automation Limited owner. It is pertinent to mention that Jyoti CNC is close to both the Prime Minister and the Gujarat chief minister. The ventilators supplied in the Ahmedabad hospital were by Jyoti CNC Automation.
As per reports, Jyoti CNC Automation and Andhra Pradesh Med Tech Zone(AMTZ) had received Rs 22.5 crore in advance payment in May for the delivery of ventilators. However, owing to some issues related to standards, both were dropped from the list. On May 15, the Ahmedabad civil hospital superintendent had written to the state government that Dhaman-1 ventilators manufactured by Jyoti CNC were not being able to provide desired results.
According to an expose of these ventilators in Frontline magazine, the special empowered group (SEG), which was set up by the Union government under the chairmanship of the NITI Aayog CEO, in its terms of reference, had the clear objective of developing collaborations with the private sector, NGOs and international agencies. Why? No big guesses-- crisis was an opportunity! The SEG estimated that nearly two lakh ventilators would be required to meet the challenge and Rs 2,000 crore under the PMCARES Fund will be earmarked to procure 60,000 ventilators. Tenders were floated on March 27, 2020.
HLL LifeCare Limited was designated as the sole agency to carry out ventilator procurement. The orders were revised and eventually, an order for 60,884 ventilators was placed. BEL(Bharat Electronics Limited) and Skanray Technologies Private Limited, Mysuru, Karnataka got orders to manufacture 30,000 ventilators; AgVa Health Care and Maruti Suzuki Limited -10,000 ventilators; AMTZ-13,500; Allied Medical Limited(AML) Gurugram-350.
The report further adds that AgVa and AMTZ have no prior experience in manufacturing high-end ventilators. Some medical experts opined that the manufacture of high-end ventilators was time-consuming and that the government had either misjudged the capacity of these companies to deliver or had misrepresented facts.
The Frontline report alleges that certification was not seriously looked into and in a few cases, was even fudged.
Mysteries abound in the purchase of these ventilators. But the silver lining is that these have been rejected in some hospitals.
What is required is a thorough enquiry into the alleged scam which flows from nowhere else than the policies set in motion by the Prime Minister himself.
The writer is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.