Scam in Covid Care? Allegations of Funds Swindling in Purchases of Equipment Surface in Karnataka

Even as it prides itself on having kept the spread of COVID-19 under control, a major misappropriation of funds may have happened in Karnataka’s expenditure on virus-related purchases made over the last two months.

The Legislature's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), led by Congress' HK Patil, is keen to initiate an investigation into the matter by conducting spot inspections of hospitals and verifying quality of equipment, including testing kits and ventilators.

However, Patil said it has not been able to go ahead with the probe due to certain 'hurdles' and he plans to speak to Assembly Speaker Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri over the matter.

The committee was tipped off by an anonymous whistle-blower about certain purchases made at an inflated cost by the Drug Logistics and Warehousing Society that is in-charge of procuring equipment.

While the Health department has bought N95 masks for Rs 147 each, the Medical Education Department is said to have bought the same for Rs 295. Similarly, multi-parameter monitors that were bought at Rs 1.67 lakh for one department, came at Rs 5.37 lakh for another.

The society had itself sent back some faulty ventilators in end-April to a vendor in Delhi after it found that quality standards were not met, its own documents showed.

The society's letter to the vendor on April 28 read, "An in-house inspection was done and the observations made by health equipment officer is as under: No certificates, brochures, model with manufacturing details, proof not available. Ventilators found use and tampered, with broken/ old stands (ex, 1 ventilator has the machine running hours of 46583 hours). The technical specifications do not comply fully compared to the data sheet."

The PAC now wants to probe all such purchases made over the last few months since the pandemic hit the state. The 20-member committee has MLAs from all parties.

While Patil is a Congress legislator, some of the other members are former speaker Ramesh Kumar, Janata Dal-Secular’s HD Revanna and JD(S) MLC TA Sharavana. BJP’s Murugesh Nirani and Umesh Katti are also members of the panel.

"We will hold a meeting with the Speaker on this and sort it out. The PAC held a serious discussion to visit sites, hospitals and peruse documents. According to the allegations, there are a lot of fishy things. We want to do inspections and site visits and look at the quality of equipment. But there are hurdles, the notification says we cannot visit places. That hurdle has to be cleared so we will meet with the speaker to sort it out," Patil told News18.

About 10 days ago, the committee members decided to visit quarantine centres and hospitals and the drugs society, but could not do so as the speaker raised objection to it.

"There was a notification issued saying we should not make any such inquiry. In view of that, we have decided that the chairman (Patil himself) will meet the speaker and we should discuss on resolving this hurdle, so that we can make visits of COVID-19 hospitals, quarantine centres, examine the quality of drugs and quality of resources given to the quarantine centres," Patil said.

The speaker's office, however said he had not received any official intimation of the committee's decisions on the issue nor a request for a meeting. His notification to stop site visits had happened during the lockdown that ended on May 31.

While there is no specific estimation of how major the scam is, Patil said serious questions were raised regarding the quality of ventilators, PPE kits, masks and sanitisers, purchase of which run into crores.

Meanwhile, Health Minister B Sriramulu said there was no need for any such inquiry as all purchases were above board, adding that he would make available documents to the committee if sought within a week.

"Yes the accusation has come that corruption is there, but how do you prove there is corruption. I am ready to give documents," he told News18.