Brushing aside remarks by the Patna High Court, ignoring a series of audits flagging irregularities, from missing oxygen to expired medicine, and in the face of allegations of “document leaks” and “tweaks,” the RJD-JD(U) state Government in Bihar has renewed, for another five years, the contract to run emergency ambulances across the state to a company owned by relatives of an MP of the ruling JD(U). It has also, for the first time, added a clause in the contract that it could be extended by three more years.
On May 31, the Rs 1,600-crore contract, to run a fleet of 2,125 ambulances as part of the national Dial 102 Emergency service, was awarded to Patna-based Pashupatinath Distributors Private Limited (PDPL), run by relatives of Jahanabad MP Chandeshwar Prasad Chandravanshi. Under this, ambulances ferry critical patients, pregnant women, and infants to the nearest government hospitals free of cost.
A fleet of ambulances on the campus of the State Health Society of Bihar in Patna. The contract, given to PDPL on May 31, was for running 2,125 ambulances as part of the Dial 102 service. Express photo
Official records investigated by The Indian Express show how norms were tweaked amid objections since the Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued on April 5, 2022.
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. None of these directors was available for comment.
This is the second stint for PDPL running Dial 102 ambulances but this time as sole bidder. Incidentally, in 2017, PDPL and Samman Foundation, as a consortium, got the Rs 400-crore Dial 102 contract to run about 650 ambulances. This time, however, Samman teamed up with BVG India Limited, Mumbai; and was joined by two other bidders: Ziquitza Health Care Limited, Mumbai; and GVK Emergency Management and Research Institute, Secunderabad.
This is the second stint for PDPL running Dial 102 ambulances but this time as sole bidder.
Changes in tender terms, ‘leaks’ allegation The original RFP said the bidder (in case of sole bidder) must have experience in operations and management of “at least 750 ambulances (besides 50 advanced life support ambulances)” supported by a call centre of “at least 75 seats” over three years since 2018-19.
PDPL had not independently run ambulance services in Bihar and had a call centre of only 50 seats during these three years. So it got relief when State Health Society of Bihar (SHSB) — the Health Department agency that handles the service — reduced the stipulated number of advanced life support ambulances to 40 and call centre to 50 seats.
Then, in May 2022, as per a corrigendum, a key term was changed. While the original RFP had said the “the final selection of the agency/ bidder shall be as per Quality and Cost based Selection (a standard practice in hiring agency with good experience),” the corrigendum said “the final selection of the agency shall be as per the least cost selection method”. This, effectively, cleared the decks for the lowest bidder.
Incidentally, in 2017, PDPL and Samman Foundation, as a consortium, got the Rs 400-crore Dial 102 contract to run about 650 ambulances.
In July 2022, three RJD MLAs, Mukesh Kumar Roshan, Rishi Kumar and Bhai Virendra, wrote a letter to then Bihar Health Minister BJP’s Mangal Pandey alleging that there were “leaks” in bidding documents and called for a fresh bidding process. However, on August 9, 2022, Nitish Kumar snapped ties with BJP and joined the Grand Alliance of RJD and six other parties. Tejashwi Prasad Yadav became Deputy CM and Health Minister and that complaint went into cold storage.
Asked about this, RJD’s Maner MLA and party spokesperson Bhai Virendra told The Indian Express: “I had raised the matter because leaking of bidding documents was a serious issue. I had done my part to raise the issue. But now I have my limitations as a politician.”
Tejashwi Yadav was unavailable for comment.
When contacted, MP Chandeshwar Prasad Chandravanshi said: “It is my relatives’ company and I have no personal say or stake in it.”
Asked about the potential conflict of interest over his kin’s business getting a state government contract for the second term in a row amid allegations of favouritism, he said: “We all know Nitish Kumar, he does not favour anyone. PDPL is an established company that was in petroleum, liquor trading and transport business and got Dial 102 contract purely on merit. We are now established in ambulance services.”
Rivals go to HC and SC
Disqualified for not having submitted the “stipulated balance sheet,” BVG and Samman went to court in December 2022 challenging the contract.
On December 8, 2022, a Division Bench of Patna High Court, comprising Justices Ahsanuddin Amanullah and Sunil Dutta Mishra, said that since the matter would require the court to consider the grievance raised by the petitioner, “the tender process, which has already begun, may continue but no final decision shall be taken by the Committee (State Health Society of Bihar) without leave of this court”.
On April 10, 2023, when state Advocate General PK Shahi requested the court to vacate its December 8 order and allow the contract be awarded to the lowest bidder, the court asked who, between PDPL and Samman, could execute the fresh tender at a rate lower than the existing one. Samman agreed to do this and filed an affidavit to this effect while PDPL refused.
It is my relatives’ company, I have no say or stake in it…They got the contract on merit. (CM) Nitish Kumar doesn’t favour anyone: Chandeshwar Prasad Chandravanshi, JD(U) Jahanabad MP
Significantly, the same day, the court flagged the complaint of leaks and urged the SHSB to “secure the complete records” and asked its Administrative officer to explain whether “it is permissible for him to reveal certain material information.”
A fortnight later, the court vacated the December 8 order saying it “stands modified to the extent that lowest bidder is permitted to execute the work subject to outcome of the present writ petition”.
The consortium of BVG India and Samman challenged this order in the Supreme Court on the plea that Samman was not considered the lowest bidder despite its affidavit.
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On May 15, the SC bench of Justices A S Bopanna and C T Ravi Kumar made it clear that the High Court “shall advert to all contentions and consider and dispose of the Writ Petition on its own merits and in accordance with law..”. It also asked the High Court to refer to its order of April 10 (on offering work to lowest bidder) and added that if the writ petition cannot be disposed of “immediately,” the submissions made by the petitioners be considered after “hearing all the parties.”
State cites A-G opinion
However, pending this, SHBS executive director Sanjay Kumar Singh, in a letter addressed to civil surgeons of all 38 Bihar districts on May 31, said: “… Following interim orders of Patna High Court and legal opinion from learned advocate general, operationalisation and management of fleet of ambulances and mortuaries vans through integrated centralized call centre in the state of Bihar under public private partnership (PPP) mode, the contract is awarded to L-1 bidder M/s Pashupatinath Distributors Private Limited, Patna”.
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When asked why had he done this despite instructions from the court to wait until the petition had been disposed of, Singh said: “The state was running an estimated loss of over Rs 2.5 crore per month on account of the delay… so we went ahead with PDPL, the lowest bidder. As for the SC order asking the Patna High Court to dispose of the matter, the order does not look clear. The SC order did not stay the HC order but asked to consider other aspects. Under these circumstances, we sought opinion of the A-G and decided to award the provisional contract to PDPL. If the HC orders otherwise, we will comply accordingly.”
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