In The Eye Of A Storm

345

SHEIKH ABID

IN a shocking revelation, the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science (SKIMS) in Srinagar finds itself entangled in a web of corruption and irregularities, raising serious concerns about the integrity of the institution. At the epicentre of this scandal is the implementation of the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (AB-PMJAY) scheme, aimed at providing affordable healthcare to the common masses.

  • Making a mess of a scheme

Under the AB-PMJAY scheme, the SKIMS had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with local vendors to secure discounted rates for essential medical items, ensuring that the patients receive the benefits intended by the government. However, the SKIMS-formed investigations have exposed a blatant disregard for the agreed-upon terms, as vendors exploited the scheme to overprice items, reaping excessive profits at the expense of vulnerable patients.

But the SKIMS-formed Verification Committee, tasked with scrutinising invoices and ensuring adherence to the MoU, failed in its duty, allowing the fraudulent practices to persist unchecked. Needless to say, the consequences were dire, with the government exchequer suffering losses due to arbitrary or faulty deductions by the committee. Three officials, including a chief pharmacist with a tainted history, were suspended on charges of corruption, but the scandal took an unexpected turn when the overpriced funds were not recovered.

In an attempt to address the mounting concerns, the SKIMS administration initiated a six-member committee to investigate the shortcomings in the AB-PMJAY umbrella scheme implementation last year. The findings were nothing short of alarming, uncovering a deeply ingrained culture of corruption within the institution.

The administration acted swiftly, and later blacklisted these vendors in February 2023, and the three officials from the Drug and Pharmacy Department, SKIMS – who were hand-in-glove with these vendors and had minted huge money from them – were suspended on grounds of corruption. But the suspension seems mere hogwash as the overpriced money was neither recovered from these vendors nor from these tainted officials and the government exchequer was taken for a toss.

The KC has access to these reports which read thus: “Deductions done by Bill Verification Committee have either been arbitrary or faulty viz-a-viz the laid-down criteria for discount clause mentioned in MoU; which has resulted in loss to the Government exchequer. In view of the observation of discrepancies in the discount given, a full-fledged audit of all the bill files pertaining to AB-PMJAY Scheme may be considered”.

The Director, SKIMS, while speaking to KC over the phone some time back, after the report of the six-member committee had come, asserted that his administration would not allow any corruption in the institute and that they were ready to axe all involved in the embezzlement cases. He maintained that during this stint he had managed to greatly streamline operations at the SKIMS and had hugely cleaned the mess.

On record, the claim of cleaning the mess after taking over from predecessors has been a sort of legacy with the directors at SKIMS. As for appointments of faculty and non-faculty members and procurement of equipments and medicines, the SKIMS has always remained in news for favouritism. The truth is – the only legacy that the politics-driven SKIMS seems to have is, empty claims of ‘clearing the mess’.

To further complicate matters and as an attempt to sabotage embezzlements, a one-man committee headed by Dr. Shariq Masood was formed to re-evaluate the suspended officials’ culpability. Skepticism surrounds this move too, with concerns raised about a potential cover-up as the one-member-committee seemingly operates without any checks and balances needed for an impartial investigation. The credibility of this one-man committee is now being questioned, with fears that it may lead to the reinstatement of individuals involved in the corruption scandal.

When contacted, Dr. Shariq Masood told KC that he was commissioned with a specific responsibility and had no role in investigating into the general functionality of the AB-PMJAY scheme. He added, “My responsibility was limited to handling inquiries around the suspended employees and submitting a report as per service regulations, which I have done. My work did not involve the general functionality of the AB-PMJAY umbrella scheme”.

  • A Chief Pharmacist of a tainted past

The Chief Pharmacist, central to the corruption allegations, has a troubling history. Previously suspended in 2016 for embezzlement and projecting excessive requirements for medical supplies, the individual managed to manipulate the system and secure re-instatement. Ominously, similar accusations resurfaced in 2017, and the Chief Pharmacist faced suspension once again. Allegations of receiving benefits from pharmaceutical companies in the form of gifts and travel tickets further tarnished the individual’s credibility.

The report of the then committee in 2017 headed by Dr. Fayaz A Sofi, Additional Professor & HOD, Rheumatology, Prof. Nisar Ahmad Chowdhary and others that pointed at negligence and dereliction of duties by the Chief Pharmacist that led to expiry of drugs/surgical disposables, is proven. The committee recommended disciplinary action and further investigation by any external agency.

The committee report reads: “The negligence and dereliction of duties of Chief Pharmacist that led to the expiry of drugs/surgical disposables, is proven beyond doubt and the charges stand established and guilt, proved”.

The committee further recommended: “A disciplinary action under rules needs to be initiated against the officials of the Department of Drug and Pharmacy and Material Management Department who have been implicated in the Inquiry Committee Report”.

“Keeping in view the seriousness of the matter, the competent authority may get it investigated further by any external agency,” reads the conclusion of the report.

With power comes might. The Chief Pharmacist, a highly influential woman official, managed to replace the committee then and got herself reinstated. Surprisingly, another scam surfaced and the same lady was suspended again and later reinstated. This lady officer has made a mockery of the SKIMS committees and the administration and has escaped the wrath of agencies as per her whims and fancies.

Talking to KC, a source said that the officer was receiving benefits from different pharmaceutical companies in the form of gifts and travelling tickets. He further added, “And now her exoneration is being pushed from different quarters and there are chances she may get reinstated soon and breed further corruption in the department. The one-member committee has not operated through proper investigative channels and there are apprehensions that the new committee might reinstate her. The suspension and reinstatement are a part of the job but reinstating on the same post and without curtailing powers are a blatant violation of rules and regulations. This sets a wrong example and paves way for others to indulge in corruption”.

Further exploration by KC has also revealed that officials like her have seemingly transformed SKIMS into their personal fortress, intimidating anyone who dares speak against them. The SKIMS-framed committees had time and again reported her embezzlements and corruption at the expense of patient welfare and the government exchequer, but all in vain.

“There has been broad daylight loot under the Ayushman Bharat Scheme wherein these suspended officials, along with their favourite vendors, have looted crores of rupees from the government exchequer. The scheme is meant for poor patients, as announced by the PM, but due to mismanagement, it has only benefitted highly influential vendors with the help of the suspended Chief Pharmacist,” reveals a source.

  • Questions that scream for answers

There are some serious questions which need to be answered by the SKIMS administration. If these officials have not done any serious crime then what was the need to suspend them and stop payment to vendors? Why does the SKIMS lack the mechanism to scrutinise overpricing of packages meant for patients? When the scheme was launched to benefit poor patients, why did SKIMS allow helping the vendors and these suspended officials in minting huge amounts of money at the cost of the scheme and poor patients? Why was the Chief Pharmacist repeatedly reinstated despite her tainted past record of huge embezzlements? When officials deputed to scrutinise files could not perform their duty professionally, what was the punishment awarded by the SKIMS administration to such officials since mere suspending from services is not considered punishment? Why did the administration form a one-member committee when a six-member committee had comprehensively detailed the whole scam in their document?

The administration needs to answer these questions since you cannot be operating without ethical checks and balances. Today’s India runs on wheels of accountability, not thuggery.

All eyes are now on the forthcoming committee report led by Dr. Shariq Masood and the action that would be taken by the incumbent higher administrators. It is hoped that the report and its resultant action would carve a new path for the institution and the Drugs and Pharmacy department in particular. The report’s outcome will either expose the magnitude of corruption within SKIMS or pave the way for tainted officials to take over again without any curtailment of powers. Sources suggest that the depth of corruption warrants government intervention, which calls for past and present cases to be handed over to the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB). Additionally, there are demands for the appointment of a new director based upon merit, with no political allegiance, after the incumbent leaves office in March at the expiry of term. The endeavour is to ensure that the SKIMS is no longer used as a platform for politics-driven and corrupt practices by those with vested interests.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here