Bihar: Government awards Rs 1,600-cr ambulance contract to JD(U) MP’s kin despite Court’s warnings and several red flags

Bihar: Government awards Rs 1,600-cr ambulance contract to JD(U) MP’s kin despite Court’s warnings and several red flags

Expired medicine, no oxygen: 1600 cr ambulance contract to firm JD(U)

The Bihar government has recently awarded a 1600 crore contract to run emergency ambulances across the state to a company owned by relatives of an MP of the ruling JD(U) party. This decision has raised many eyebrows and sparked controversy, as the company has been accused of several irregularities and violations in the past.

The contract and the company

The contract, given to Pashupatinath Distributors Private Limited (PDPL) on May 31, 2023, was for running 2,125 ambulances as part of the Dial 102 service, which provides free transport to critical patients, pregnant women, and infants to the nearest government hospitals.

The directors of PDPL include: Sunil Kumar, son of the MP; Neha Rani, wife of Sunil Kumar; Monalisha, wife of Jitendra Kumar, son of MP; and Yogendra Prasad Nirala, brother-in-law of the MP.

This is the second time that PDPL has got the contract for running Dial 102 ambulances, but this time as a sole bidder. In 2017, PDPL and Samman Foundation, as a consortium, got the 400 crore contract to run about 650 ambulances.

The allegations and the audits

The awarding of the contract to PDPL has been challenged by several other bidders and activists, who have alleged that the company has been favoured by the government and that there have been serious lapses in the quality and performance of its services.

Some of the allegations and audit findings against PDPL are:

- The Patna High Court had questioned the leak of bidding documents from the end of the State Health Society of Bihar (SHSB), which oversees the ambulance service, and had asked for an inquiry into the matter.
- A series of audits by SHSB had flagged irregularities such as missing oxygen cylinders, expired medicines, faulty equipment, overcharging, underutilization, and poor maintenance of ambulances.
- A social audit by an NGO had revealed that many ambulances were not functional or accessible, and that some drivers were untrained or drunk.
- A PIL filed in the Supreme Court had alleged that PDPL had violated labour laws and human rights by exploiting its employees and denying them minimum wages, social security, and medical facilities.

The government's response

The Bihar government has defended its decision to award the contract to PDPL, saying that it was based on legal advice and that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing by the company.

The government has claimed that:

- The bidding process was fair and transparent, and that PDPL was selected as it met all the eligibility criteria and offered the lowest price.
- The legal opinion given by the advocate-general had stated that there was no need to wait for the disposal of the pending cases in the high court and the Supreme Court, as they did not affect the validity of the contract.
- The audit reports had not found any major deficiency or discrepancy in the services provided by PDPL, and that minor issues were resolved or rectified by the company.
- The Dial 102 service had benefited lakhs of people in Bihar, especially in rural areas, and had improved the health indicators and outcomes in the state.

The implications and the questions

The awarding of the 1600 crore ambulance contract to PDPL has raised several questions about the accountability and transparency of the government and its agencies. It has also exposed the gaps and challenges in ensuring quality and efficiency in public health services.

Some of the implications and questions are:

- How can the government justify giving such a huge contract to a company that has been accused of multiple violations and irregularities?
- How can the government ignore or overlook the remarks and directions of the judiciary, which have raised doubts about the fairness and legality of the contract?
- How can the government ensure that PDPL will deliver its services as per the standards and norms prescribed by the contract?
- How can the government monitor and evaluate PDPL's performance and address any complaints or grievances from its beneficiaries or employees?
- How can the government improve its procurement and contracting processes to prevent any favouritism or corruption in awarding public contracts?

These are some of the questions that the government needs to answer and act upon, if it wants to uphold its credibility and responsibility towards the people of Bihar. The 1600 crore ambulance contract is not just a matter of money, but also of life and death for many who depend on the Dial 102 service.

The reactions and the demands

The awarding of the contract to PDPL has also evoked strong reactions and demands from various quarters, including the opposition parties, civil society groups, and media.

Some of the reactions and demands are:

- The Bihar BJP has demanded a probe into the matter and has asked the government to put the contract on hold till the inquiry is over or the high court disposes of the case. The party has called it a "clear case of conflict of interest and political patronage".
- The RJD has accused the government of "looting" public money and "endangering" public health by giving the contract to a "tainted" company. The party has demanded a CBI inquiry into the matter and has said that it will raise the issue in the upcoming monsoon session of the assembly.
- The CPI(ML) has alleged that the contract was a "scam" and a "reward" for the JD(U) MP's support to the government. The party has said that it will launch a statewide agitation against the contract and expose the "nexus" between the government and PDPL.
- The Jan Adhikar Party (JAP) has filed a PIL in the Patna High Court challenging the validity of the contract and seeking its cancellation. The party has claimed that PDPL was not qualified to run the ambulance service and that it had submitted forged documents to get the contract.
- The Bihar Voluntary Health Association (BVHA), a network of NGOs working in the health sector, has expressed concern over the quality and accountability of PDPL's services. The association has urged the government to ensure proper monitoring and evaluation of PDPL's performance and to take action against any lapses or violations.
- The Indian Express, in its editorial, has criticized the government for its "callousness" and "indifference" towards public health and welfare. The newspaper has said that the government should have cancelled or re-tendered the contract after finding out about PDPL's irregularities and that it should have followed the high court's directions. The newspaper has also called for a thorough investigation and audit of PDPL's services and finances.

The conclusion and the way forward

The 1600 crore ambulance contract to PDPL is a glaring example of how public contracts can be misused and manipulated by vested interests and how public services can be compromised and corrupted by lack of oversight and accountability. It is also a reflection of how public health is neglected and ignored by the government and its agencies.

The government needs to take urgent steps to rectify its mistakes and restore its trust and credibility among the people. It needs to review and revoke the contract if it finds any evidence of wrongdoing or irregularity by PDPL. It needs to follow and respect the orders and observations of the judiciary, which have raised serious questions about the legality and validity of the contract. It needs to ensure that PDPL delivers its services as per the standards and norms prescribed by the contract. It needs to monitor and evaluate PDPL's performance and address any complaints or grievances from its beneficiaries or employees.

The government also needs to improve its procurement and contracting processes to prevent any favouritism or corruption in awarding public contracts. It needs to make its processes more transparent and competitive, and invite more bidders with relevant experience and expertise. It needs to make its processes more accountable and responsive, and involve more stakeholders such as civil society groups, media, and beneficiaries. It needs to make its processes more efficient and effective, and ensure timely delivery and quality assurance of public services.

The 1600 crore ambulance contract is not just a matter of money, but also of life and death for many who depend on the Dial 102 service. The government cannot afford to be complacent or careless about it. It has to act responsibly and decisively to ensure that public health is protected and promoted in Bihar.

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