Two major corruption charges were levelled against the LDF government by Congress MLA V D Satheesan in the Assembly on Monday. One related to the choice of a private consultant for the Amritam Project violating norms. The second one related to the government decision to sell surplus blood plasma to Reliance Life Sciences.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan rejected the opposition demand for a probe into both the issues after the ministers concerned – local self government minister A C Moideen and health minister K K Shylaja - refuted the charges.
Satheesan raised the charges late in the day, during the discussion on supplementary demands for grants in the Budget.
Charge one: Ram Biologicals
His first charge was that crores of consulting charges were showered on a private company named Ram Biologicals with no technical competence or experience in the field of liquid waste management.
Ram Biologicals has been given the consultancy for 23 of the 137 sewage and septage projects under Amritam Scheme. Satheesan wanted to know how a company without any experience in liquid waste management found a place in the list of empanelled agencies brought out by the Suchithwa Mission.
“The Mission guidelines say that companies should have an experience of at least three years in the field. But this company was formed in 2016 and was empanelled in 2017,” Satheesan said.
Satheesan said that Ram Biologicals uses a technology called electrocoagulation that was not included in the five technical procedures sanctioned by the Centre under the Amritham project. “The technology is so impractical that despite repeated tenders no contractor has come forward to take up projects that has this company as the consultant,” Satheesan said.
He even questioned the need for such a panel of consultants. “After nine companies were shortlisted, it was decreed that no companies outside the list could compete in the tender process. This effectively kept out companies with lot more experience,” he said.
The gravest charge was that the treated water of a model plant Ram Biologicals had set up in Kannur was found to be unfit. It could cause neurological disorders like Alzheimer's and dementia, the report of a technical team constituted by Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) had concluded. “The effluent had a higher aluminium content than was permissible,” Satheesan said.
The Congress leader said that the LDF government disbanded the technical team and used another committee of its choice to validate the technology of the company. He also alleged that the agency was given a high consultancy fee of between 1.8 per cent to 2.33 per cent of the total project cost.
“None of the nine local bodies (that had chosen Ram Biologicals) were forced by the government or its officials to pick up a particular consultant,” the local self government minister said. “It was the governing councils of these local bodies that had picked the company after independently assessing the comparative competence of the empanelled agencies,” he said.
Moideen said that the company had taken up consultancy of only 23 of the 137 projects under the Amritham scheme. “The rest are done by Kerala Water Authority,” the minister said.
Moideen said that over 300 plants across the country use the technology adopted by Ram Biologicals. According to him a high-power steering committee chaired by the chief secretary had visited a plant set up by the company in Hyderabad and had found the technology viable and efficient. “It is easy to install and is also environment-friendly,” Moideen said.
Nonetheless, three questions remain unanswered. One, why was a company with no experience empanelled? Two, why was the CWRDM report rejected? Three, has the work on any of the 23 projects that have Ram Biologicals as consultant started?
Charge two: Reliance Life Sciences
Satheesan said that the National Blood Policy was tweaked right after the NDA came to power in 2014. “This has allowed the sale of surplus plasma in blood banks,” Satheesan said. “The excess plasma is now sold by the government to Reliance Life Sciences at Rs 2200 a litre. Reliance then uses it to produce plasma-derived proteins that are of immense clinical value and sells at costs ranging from Rs 6000 to Rs 20,000 a vial,” Satheesan said.
According to him, most blood banks have started selling plasma to Reliance Life Sciences. He raised three points. One, are there any guidelines to decide what is excess? “If in some blood banks there is excess, in others there would be a deficit. Since pharma companies purchase even plasma stock that is outdated or more than a year old, we should have waited for at least one year before excess stock is sold,” Satheesan said.
Now, he said blood bank units are selling plasma like there is no tomorrow. “The national policy states that plasma should not be sold for more than Rs 1600 a litre because anything more would make it look like profiteering from the sale of human organs. But Reliance has offered to pay Rs 2200 a litre and this shows the huge margins the company is reaping,” Satheesan said. He also said that blood donation camps were being organised even more frequently to collect plasma.
Two, why had the government not exercised the option to purchase costly medicines at a large discount in return for the sale of plasma. Satheesan said that such a provision was in the National Blood Policy.
“It was in 2012 that NACO (National Aids Control Organisation) informed the states of the problem of excess plasma. In 2013, the former UDF government had formed a committee to evolve a tender format. We floated the tender on the basis of the UDF format,” health minister Shylaja said.
There were three bids and Reliance was the highest bidder. “I don't see anything wrong in picking the company that provided the highest money. We also had the backing of the Law Department,” she said.
The minister also said that the money was not collected centrally. “Each blood bank unit does the sale and the money is collected at the unit itself. The revenue from sales is used exclusively for the development of the unit. Each unit has formed a committee for the purpose,” the minister said.
Shylaja said that she could not account for what private blood banks did.