August 30, 2020

Ventilator Scam: PM Cares, Sorry Careless

Tikender Singh Panwar

PMCARES, a private trust fund created by the prime minister, right since the inception is in strong criticism not just by the opposition parties but by all those who believe in transparency of public funds. Nobody knew for what and how will this money be utilised, which quintessentially was supposed to be spent to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic in India. Humongous amount was generated under this fund and a lot of money was collected through coercion by virtually forcing the government employees including the medics to shed a part of their salary.

According to reports published in the media Rs 2,000 crore was marked for the purchase of nearly 60,000 ventilators. As these ventilators were delivered in the premier health institutions of the country, there was strong resistance from the doctors over its quality of life support system. The PGI Chandigarh doctors rejected the 10 ventilators delivered to them in July 10 and said: “The machines bought with PMCare fund were found to be ‘not effective’ and ‘faulty’.”  Quoting a source from the hospital the 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.”

Similarly the doctors of Ahmedabad hospital had rejected these ventilators bought under the PMCare fund. In fact there were reports that a large number of Covid patients in the hospital died because they were put on these ventilators.

Why is it that the machines bought by the PMCare are faltering? Can we deduce that the prime minister does not want effective machines or is it part of the systemic crisis of which the PM is at the helm of affairs? We can understand this from the PM’s statements that he has been giving time and again. One of the important pronouncements is that the period of Covid-19 crisis must be seen as an opportunity! It may sound shocking but that is the reality; how our PM is viewing this pandemic. Opportunities are galore for the BJP cohorts a majority of whom are dealers and are using this period to maximize their profits. The ventilator scam is another classic one.

It may sound shocking that the factual checks to the veracity of the machines and its effectiveness, which should have been done by the government agencies were instead done at the level of hospitals, public hospitals, which were built over a period of time after we got independence from the British rule.

The revelations made through an RTI enquiry and that too not against the PMCare, which is out of bound, but from other institutions which were supposed to manufacture/buy these machines exposed the nefarious designs of the nexus between the ruling party and the cronies. There have been financial deals which were smacking of deep rooted nexus. Interestingly, these deals have been without diligence and through bypassing the the procedural protocol in purchase and testing the equipments. Also there has been a strong proximity of the business beneficiaries and the ruling party’s leadership, especially the prime minister; for example 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 Gujarat chief minister. The ventilators supplied in Ahmedabad hospital were by Jyoti CNC Automation.

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 their standards both were dropped from the list. On May 15, Ahmadabad 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 the exposure of these ventilators in The Frontline, the special empowered group(SEG) which was set up by the union government under the chairmanship of NITI Aayog CEO, in its very frame of reference had the clear objective of developing collaborations with the private sector, NGO’s 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 PMCare 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 60,884 ventilators order 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.

Significantly, according to the report,  AML, a public sector unit has a track record of having supplied more than 2,000 ventilators to many state governments and hospitals in the public sector, including army hospitals, over a considerable period of time, however it was awarded just 350 ventilators. AgVa and AMTZ have no prior experience in manufacturing high-end ventilators. The 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 about them deliberately.

Certification of these ventilators is another area which needs to be explored. An important requirement in the tender was that the ventilators must be certified by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or they must have European Union standard of CE marking. CE marking is a certification mark that indicates conformity with health, safety and environmental protection standards for products sold within the European Economic Area (EEA). There have been questions raised even at the certification of Skanray’s claims about CE certification.

Interestingly, apart from the technology issues of non compliance of these firms with specific parameters even the tender process was adjusted to suit a particular company. According to KEN, a web portal; it claimed that the AgVa was nailed to win the tender against all norms of transparency. And this pertained to the issue of certification of these ventilators. AgVa has a certificate from a third party company which they claim to be FDA complaint. However, FDA says that it does not certify companies only products and it(FDA) can be used just by itself. The AgVa as is reported was certified by Unitas Certification Services but Unitas has no existence beyond its website.

There are mysteries and mysteries in the purchase and in how this purchase was made. But the silver lining is that the BJP government has played with the lives of the people as was pointed out in Ahmadabad, thankfully the PGI Chandigarh rejected these ventilators.

What is required is a thorough enquiry into the scam which flows from nowhere else than the prime minister himself.