A letter of the health ministry dated April 2 surfaced on Thursday, raising concerns that the Union government had taken away the powers of state governments to procure ventilators and protective equipment for health workers. The letter suggested that the Union government had put in place a centralised system of procurement for Covid-19 related medical supplies.
A spokesperson of the health ministry, however, told Scroll.in that the letter was “an advisory” and the “central government is only trying to assist states, not completely replace their procurement”.
Officials of three state governments told Scroll.in that the Centre’s directions were not binding and that they continued to buy their own equipment.
The letter was written on April 2 by an under-secretary of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to all state health departments. It said that they “may not go for procurement of crucial medical equipment like PPE [personal protection equipment], N95 masks and ventilators”.
“These should be procured centrally by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and distributed to the states,” the letter said. It instructed state governments to “aggregate” their demand and furnish a “specific figure” on a “rational basis”.
A spokesperson of the health ministry said: “This is an advisory to ensure better coordination of supplies according to need. Naturally, old tenders cannot be cancelled, so some concurrent buying will continue for some time.”
As the letter surfaced on Twitter, many expressed concerns that centralised procurement could lead to more delays in the supply of crucial equipment to hospitals. Some speculated that this may adversely impact states that were ruled by non-Bharatiya Janata Party governments. The Bharatiya Janata Party is in power at the Centre.
However, officials from three non-BJP ruled states downplayed such concerns.
Shailesh Kumar Chaurasia, director at Jharkhand’s health department, said the circular used the word “may” when referring to purchases by states. “The memo is only to facilitate,” said Chaurasia. “It does not strictly restrict us from purchasing [equipment]. As per our local requirement, we are doing our own procurement.”
Chaurasia said the state was “comfortable” with the supply provided by the Centre in any case. “If there is any urgent requirement, we do our own purchase too,” he said.
Kerala officials said there was no Centre-imposed restriction on buying medical equipment. “State government has authorised us to buy whatever is required to ensure that critical items are available,” said Navjot Khosa, managing director of Kerala Medical Services Corporation. “But it is true that that we are getting a lot of support from the government of India – they are providing us with a lot of PPE kits and N-95 masks.”
Officials in Rajasthan also said that the state had been buying their own equipment. “What the Centre is providing is inadequate,” said Rohit Kumar Singh, the state’s additional chief secretary, health and family welfare. “We are spending a lot of money from our disaster management and NHM [national heath mission] budgets,” he added.