Alleging large-scale corruption in the purchase of medical kits for COVID-19 in Odisha, the Congress on Thursday sought Governor Ganeshi Lal's intervention for an impartial and thorough probe into the "mega scam", a charge strongly refuted as false by the ruling BJD.
A delegation led by state Congress president Niranjan Patnaik submitted a memorandum to the governor, alleging irregularities in the procurement of masks, testing kits, personal protection equipment (PPE) and other articles in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We submitted a memorandum to the governor and urged him to take necessary steps to ensure an impartial probe into the irregularities in the purchase of different kits and equipment by Odisha State Medical Corporation Limited (OSMCL)," Mr Patnaik told reporters.
Stating that similar memoranda have been sent by the party units in all the 30 districts of the state, he said the Congress would also approach the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Lokayukta for a thorough investigation.
Mr Patnaik pointed out that the central government issued two separate guidelines on March 21 and 24 putting the maximum retail price of masks at Rs 10 and Rs 16, respectively.
Though the Centre directed the states to purchase medical items through the e-marketing portal, with which around 200 companies are registered, in order to ensure reasonable price and transparency, Odisha chose not to do so, he said.
"Though OSMCL had initially ordered for 30 lakh masks through the portal on March 3, it suddenly pulled out on March 18 and placed its order with a Tamil Nadu firm at a rate of Rs 16 a piece, a move which smacks of corruption," the Congress leader claimed.
Through this portal, Delhi, Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Gujarat, Telangana and other states had purchased masks at Rs 8.47, Rs 7.88, Rs 7.50, Rs 2.40 and Rs 1.34 per piece, respectively, Mr Patnaik claimed and added that the procurement made by OSMCL should, therefore, be thoroughly investigated.
Moreover, just two days before the purchase was made from the Tamil Nadu firm, the corporation had bought masks from another company at a cost of Rs 9.90 per piece, he said and wondered as to what prompted them to pay a much higher price.
Similarly, RT-PCR machine was also purchased at three times its price, the Congress alleged in its memorandum and said while RT-PCR machine which costs around Rs 4-5 lakh has been bought at Rs 12.84 lakh.
PPE and testing kits have also been procured at exorbitant prices, it said, adding that Odisha has purchased at least 100 RT-PCR machines and two lakh testing kits.
"Though it is mandatory for the government to purchase 20 per cent of its requirements from MSMEs within the state, procurement was done from outside the state in utter disregard of the guideline, which needs to be probed," Mr Patnaik said.
Refuting the allegations, BJD spokesperson Sasmit Patra said the state government never paid a single rupee higher than the actual price.
The Rajya Sabha member hit out at the opposition and challenged them to approach the court and appropriate forum if they have any evidence.
Asserting that the state government always stood firm with the people in the battle against COVID-19, Mr Patra said it followed the central guidelines without any exception. He cited the notifications issued by the Centre in March.
He said because of high demand and limited supply of masks, many states were forced to buy at a high price and claimed that Gujarat had purchased masks at Rs 20 per piece, Maharashtra and Kerala at Rs 16, Karnataka at Rs 18.74, West Bengal at Rs 17.70 and Tamil Nadu at Rs 15.96. It was quite natural as the country was passing through a rough time due to shortage of medical equipment, he said.
The Odisha government's top priority is to save lives of people, ensure their safety and wellbeing during the pandemic. The safety of frontline workers was also uppermost in the government's mind, he said.
Terming the allegations made by the Congress false, Mr Patra said people will never forgive dirty politics during the pandemic. They are free to approach courts and appropriate forums with evidence, he added.