PM under pressure to probe medical procurement deal

Published On: April 9, 2020 07:45 AM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

KATHMANDU, April 9: Prime Minister KP Oli is under pressure to investigate alleged irregularities in medical equipment procurement after some leaders of his party raised the matter at an internal party meeting and called for action against anyone involved in wrongdoing.

At a meeting of the party secretariat—the apex body of the ruling party— a section of leaders drew the attention of Prime Minister Oli, who also heads the party, and called for investigation into the matter. Without mentioning by name the business firm and individuals involved in the scam, they demanded a probe.

Informed sources say secretariat members Jhalanath Khanal, Bamdev Gautam and Madhav Kumar Nepal among others have demanded that the government leadership see to the medical logistics in time and also avoid past mistakes. Citing media reports, they questioned the controversial medical equipment procurement deal signed with the business firm OMNI Group. Following widespread criticism, the deal has since been scrapped.

“Leaders expressed their views about the efforts made by the government to bring the COVID-19 under control and suggested essential steps to move matters forward,” reads a statement issued by the party's spokesperson Narayan Kaji Shrestha.

Secretariat member Ishwar Pokharel heads a high-level COVID-19 Crisis Management Committee and another party leader Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal the health ministry—the nodal agency involved in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Both of them have been denying any personal involvement in the procurement deal, pointing out that it is the director general at the Department of Health Services who is responsible for awarding the procurement tender.

While the government dillydallys over taking up the procurement scam, the anti-graft body, the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority has already seized all documents related to the procurement. It has also interrogated Mahendra Bahadur Shrestha, director general at the Department of Health Services. The health minister, however, has not been interrogated so far. At Tuesday's secretariat meeting, Prime Minister Oli had tried to reassure the party leaders, arguing that the government has done its best to prevent the virus from ravaging the country.

Briefing the party leaders, Prime Minister Oli reportedly said he was totally unaware of the procurement deal, pointing out that it was signed by the director general concerned. The premier reportedly assured the party leaders of a probe into the matter and of action 'if there is evidence to establish any wrongdoing'.

The meeting was apparently called by way of damage control after the procurement deal on the medical equipment kicked up controversy and the government came under flak for incompetence in the face of the virus pandemic.

The health ministry initially awarded the procurement deal to OMNI Group without any open competition but it hastily scrapped the deal, arguing that the company was unable to supply the logistics on time. The company, according to health officials involved in the deal, was able to supply only 10 percent of the total procurement by the time the deadline expired. Many suspect that officials including line ministers were involved in irregularities while procuring the logistics.

Under the deal awarded to OMNI Group, the price structure was three times higher than that paid by private hospitals. Under enormous pressure from some party leaders and opposition parties, the government terminated the deal.

Immediately after terminating the deal, the government turned to the Nepal Army for arranging the medical logistics. This decision, however, was not free from controversy.

Some leaders in the party have expressed dissatisfaction that the army had been brought into the picture even though the government is one of the strongest in Nepal's parliamentary history. Some have seen the government's move as simply failure to handle the situation.

Front-line health workers have been set to work without adequate personal protection gear and the required medical equipment because of mismanagement in medical logistics.

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