A top health official in Himachal Pradesh was arrested for alleged corruption in the procurement of coronavirus-related medical supplies on May 22.
Five days later, the state Bharatiya Janata Party president Rajeev Bindal resigned. “So that there is no pressure of any kind and the probe is not influenced in any way, I am tendering my resignation keeping in mind high moral grounds,” he said. The BJP is in government both in Himachal Pradesh and at the Centre.
What is the connection between Bindal and the case?
An audio clip surfaces
It all began with the arrest of Himachal Pradesh’s director of health services Ajay Gupta.
A week ago, a leaked phone conversation surfaced in which Gupta can be purportedly heard accepting a bribe offer of Rs 5 lakh. The police subsequently claimed to have verified the audio clip, and said investigations suggested Gupta was involved in corruption in theprocurement of medical supplies and equipment.
What was purchased
The directorate of health services which Gupta headed was the procurement agency for Himachal Pradesh’s Covid-19-related medical supplies, said RD Dhiman, the state’s additional chief secretary for health and family welfare.
The most significant purchases that the directorate of health services did was of personal protective equipment or PPEs – the safety gear required to protect health workers from exposure to the novel coronavirus, which has caused the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Since Himachal Pradesh, unlike many other states, does not have a specialised medical purchase corporation, a technical committee headed by Gupta was assigned the task of procurement, said Dhiman. “Usually tenders are put out at the district level by the chief medical officers, but that is not possible in the time of an emergency,” said Dhiman. “The technical committee used to look at samples, exercise adequate prudence and place orders.”
The state bought PPE suits in two tranches in April, said Dhiman. No bids were invited in either of the cases.
The first set of orders was given to a Chandigarh-based company called Bioaide Corporation. “We got 6,000 PPEs at a rate of Rs 1,400 each,” said Dhiman. That amounts to an order of Rs 84 lakh.
Subsequently, the state bought another 7,000 PPEs from a Kurukshetra-based company called Bansal Corporations for Rs 1,050 per piece, Dhiman added. The total order amounted to Rs 73.5 lakh.
The state released an expression of interest document seeking bids from PPE suppliers on April 21, but later scrapped it. “By then our situation had somewhat stabilised and HLL [a public-sector company] said they could supply to the state,” said Dhiman. “We have made no fresh purchase from any private players after April 21.”
The ‘middle man’
Dhiman said the health department negotiated directly with these two companies.
Yet, he said the person on the other end of the phone line in the leaked audio clip – reported to be a man named Prithvi Singh, according to the police – was a “middle man probably”.
“He is nowhere in the records of the health department,” said Dhiman. “It was an isolated case where the person [Gupta] was trying to extract a bribe from another private person.”
While the police arrested Gupta almost immediately after the audio clip surfaced, they are yet to detain Singh. “Investigation is going on. The other person [Singh] is also under question,” said Shalini Agnihotri, a police superintendent at the State Vigilance and Anti Corruption Bureau, who is heading the special investigation unit that is probing the case.
She declined to answer specific questions on the investigation and directed this reporter to Anurag Garg, the vigilance chief in the state.
Garg did not respond to calls seeking comment.
‘Close associate of the BJP president’
The ostensible delay in arresting Prithvi Singh has come under some scrutiny. The BJP’s political opponents attribute it to his alleged proximity to Rajeev Bindal.
“Prithvi Singh is a close associate of the BJP president,” alleged Kuldeep Rathode, the Congress state president.
Rakesh Singha, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator, also questioned the delay. “The corruption law clearly states that both the bribe-giver and bribe-acceptor have to be arrested,” he said. “So why has he not been arrested after so long?”
When Scroll.in phoned Bindal to seek his comment, he said he was unable to speak as he was in a “remote area” with patchy connectivity.
A business connection?
But what is Bindal’s connection to Prithvi Singh?
Bindal’s daughter, Swati Bindal Gandhi and her husband Raj Kumar Gandhi, run a diagnostics lab in Solan called the Apex Diagnostic Lab. The business card of the lab, seen by Scroll.in, features three names: Swati Bindal Gandhi, Raj Kumar Gandhi and Prithvi Singh. On the card, Singh is designated as the lab’s marketing manager.
When Scroll.in contacted Prithvi Singh, he refused to comment.
Raj Kumar Gandhi told Scroll.in that Singh had not been associated with the lab for “many months”. Gandhi, however, did not specify when exactly he left the business. “In 2020,” he said.
Gandhi denied having anything to do with either Bioaide Corporation or Bansal Corporation, the two companies that had received orders from the Himachal Pradesh health department.
An executive of Bioaide Corporation confirmed the company had sold PPEs to Himachal Pradesh, but declined to answer further questions.
Bansal Corporation in Kurukshetra could not be located. A web search by that name yields no relevant results. Scroll.in found two companies in Kurukshetra, however, with similar names: Bansal Sales Corporation and Bansal Polymers.
Both denied having supplied PPEs to Haryana or even being in the business of supplying or manufacturing them. “We are into electronics retail,” said a representative of Bansal Sales Corporation. Bansal Polymers said they manufactured PVC pipes.