PPE Purchase: ‘Blank Cheque’ Pain In Odisha Govt Neck

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Bhubaneswar: The expression ‘blank cheque’, literally meaning a signed cheque with no monetary amount mentioned in it, has become a subject of controversy, providing the Opposition with ammunition to fire salvoes at the Odisha government.

Already on a sticky wicket because of alleged corruption in the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) to fight COVID-19, the ruling dispensation has invited wrath from the Opposition BJP and Congress, which have demanded a probe into the alleged large-scale irregularities in PPE procurement through the state-owned Odisha State Medical Corporation Limited. On May 31, media reports about stranded PPE-laden trucks laden blew the lid of the issue with payment in
excess of prevailing market rates and offering of lucrative incentives to suppliers and vendors coming under the scanner. The Opposition has not only questioned the government’s procurement strategy but also sought to know how masks and testing kits were bought at different rates from different suppliers.

What, however, has added to the administration’s woes is the use of the term ‘blank cheque’, literal or otherwise, by senior IAS officer and former head of the purchase committee Hemanta Sharma. “Can you give a single example in which an official of the Centre or any state government till date has given a blank cheque to the supplier for procurement of essential medicines or medical equipment? This is the challenge we have managed to overcome. This was possible because of the confidence the Chief Minister has given to us,” Sharma said in reply to a question by the government’s chief spokesperson on COVID-19 Subroto Bagchi, during an interview broadcast on April 28.

As allegations of possible wrongdoings begun to surface, the government last week removed Sharma, who is serving as secretary, industries, from the purchase committee. “An impartial probe is needed as several bigwigs of the government are involved in the scam. People have the right to know the reason behind Sharma’s removal from the COVID-19 purchase committee,” BJP state general secretary Prithviraj Harichandan said.

Subsequently, the government also stripped a couple of other senior bureaucrats of COVID-19 management responsibilities ostensibly because they were part of the purchase panel and their alleged role in the PPE procurement came under the media lens and Opposition parties attacked
the government. “Removing the head is not enough. We want to know the tail of this scam as well. The Chief Minister should not remain silent by removing Sharma and immediately order an impartial probe,” Congress MLA Suresh Routray said.

While the government has evidently shifted into damage control mode, Sharma’s earlier use of the blank cheque metaphor continues to cause discomfort to the powers-that-be, with the Opposition parties trying to push it into the popular imagination. This compelled Health and Family Welfare Minister Naba Kishore Das on Saturday to offer a clarification. “The state government has neither given any blank cheque to anyone nor is there any provision to issue blank cheques to anyone,” he said, in his apparent bid to clarify that Sharma’s statement should not be taken in the literal sense.

The Opposition contention, however, is how could the government give a carte blanche to the health department and certain officers to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Countering Opposition charges, senior BJD leader Prafulla Ghadai said: “The Chief Minister never encourages corruption. If any irregularity comes to his notice, he always takes prompt action.”

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