Assam PPE kit scam: Himanta Biswa Sarma's family friend involved?
In the latest update on the alleged Assam PPE kit scam, the Assam National Health Mission's (NHM) Right to Information (RTI) replies showed businessman Rajib Bora's firm received lucrative PPE kit orders in March 2020. Interestingly, Bora is a former business associate of Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma. The RTI replies were obtained by Guwahati-based media platform The CrossCurrent and published on The Wire.
- At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Assam was in an acute shortage of PPE kits.
- Following this, the then Assam Health Minister Sarma placed urgent orders with several firms for emergency COVID-19-related supplies.
- The Assam government had also procured 50,000 PPE kits from Guangzhou in China.
- The Wire reported Sarma's wife's firm had also received bulk orders from the NHM at the time.
The RTI replies mentioned that Bora's firm, Agile Associates, delivered 10,000 PPE kits to the NHM in April 2020 at Rs. 2,200 per piece. Previously, the state health ministry, then led by Sarma, had issued urgent orders to his wife Riniki Bhuyan Sarma's firm JCB Industries and his family's business associate Ghanshyam Dhanuka's firm Meditime Healthcare for Rs. 990/kit.
Interestingly, Bora is also the current director of another company, Digitech Media and Entertainment Private Limited, which was co-founded by Bhuyan Sarma and Bora's wife Anjana, per the Ministry of Corporate Affairs documents supplied to The CrossCurrent. Bhuyan Sarma exited the firm in 2009 and Bora became its director along with his wife. The Wire report was published in collaboration with The CrossCurrent.
Another company owned by Bora, Brahmaputra Television Network, was blacklisted in 2017 for its alleged involvement in an advertisement scam. Therefore, the fact that Bora's Agile Associates managed to get the health department contract raised a few eyebrows, including that of the Guwahati-based civil society organization, Assam Public Works (APW). APW alleged that the company had misappropriated public funds during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some Kolkata-based investors of Digitech also made investments in Vasistha Realtors in which Sarma's son Nandil Biswa Sarma is currently a majority shareholder. Interestingly, Dhanuka's father Ashok Dhanuka is a director in that firm as well. These investors have also invested in another firm, Padamavati Traders (India) Private Limited. The CM's father and wife were both directors of the said firm before the Dhanukas.
The RTI responses received by The CrossCurrent point to discrepancies in the PPE kit prices supplied to the NHM. For instance, between March 18 and 23, 2020, Assam-based NE Surgical Industries quoted the lowest rate of Rs. 600 per piece. However, the NHM placed the order with Bengaluru-based TBS Telematic and Biomedical Services Private Limited at Rs. 1,960 per piece—which was the highest quotation.
Separately, Bhuyan Sarma on Wednesday denied allegations of a scam by her company—JCB Industries—in the supply of PPE kits during the pandemic. Taking to Twitter, she called the accusations published on The Wire "unfounded." The aforementioned report said the Assam government had ordered COVID-19-related emergency supplies from four firms, three of which were linked to Bhuyan Sarma and the Sarma family's business associate Dhanuka.
JCB Industries received the "urgent order" on March 18, 2020, just days before PM Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020. However, the Guwahati-based company, known for producing sanitary napkins, had never produced medical equipment and safety gear. Yet, it was given an urgent order for 5,000 PPE kits to the NHM-Assam, the report by The CrossCurrent and The Wire said.
RTI responses also revealed both JCB Industries and the Sarma family's business associate Ghanshyam Dhanuka's Meditime Healthcare didn't supply the complete "urgent" order. Still, the government gave more orders to Dhanuka's firms, GRD Pharmaceuticals and Meditime Healthcare, at a higher rate. However, Dhanuka's firms have been regular suppliers to the state health department even in the Congress era when Sarma was the health minister.