States cry foul as Centre consolidates power on buying COVID-19 equipment

Many state governments have started purchasing and procuring test kits, PPEs, masks and ventilators on urgent basis, citing the Centre's inability to have sent the equipment on time

COVID-19, equipment, testing, medical facilities
Earlier this month, the government exempted basic customs duty and health cess on these items (except sanitiser) till September 30.

The Centre and states seem to be at loggerheads on the procurement of medical equipment relating to COVID-19.

Several states are up in arms after the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare directed them “not to go for procurement of crucial medical devices for COVID-19 management like Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), N95 masks and ventilators.”

The Centre also directed the states that these and related items should be only procured by it and distributed to the states.

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While the Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh governments have called the order an infringement on the federal rights of states, the Punjab government has said that it has been left to fend for itself with no central help.

Centralising the purchase process

In its order, the Centre had told states that it has mounted a nationwide monitoring on the pandemic situation under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005. It announced that it has allocated ₹15,000 crore for the purchase of medical equipment and other related issues pertaining to COVID-19 and placed large-scale orders with vendors, both inside the country and abroad for equipment and would distribute those to states on basis of need. To avail the equipment, the states have to give their requirement every fortnight.

The health ministry had asked states to give their requirement for COVID-19 management every fortnight. But some of the states were reported to have questioned this directive, pointing to the Centre’s inability to provide test kits, PPEs, masks and even ventilators in time of need.

Worries, complaints of states

The states feel the Centre’s creation of a centralised system for procurement is not necessary and that health is a state subject and in a federal structure, the Centre should not link aid with conditions. Some of the states feel that the Centre wants to grab the rights of the states in one form or the other and this time it has used the National Disaster Management Act.

“We were aghast to see this circular by the central government. In the federal structure, health and internal security is the state subject. But the BJP led authoritarian government wants to throttle the right of the states by using disaster management act,” The New Indian Express quoted a senior minister of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government as saying.

A senior health official of a state government claimed that they had placed the orders for purchasing the equipment, but the Centre forced them to cancel the order at the eleventh hour.

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The Congress ruled Chhattisgarh government has also questioned the Centre’s decision.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh in an interview to Indian Express on April 16 said the state has not received any central support apart from only 10,000 of the 1 lakh rapid testing kits it had ordered. He said the state government has been procuring the other things from the open market.

“The Centre has to help us out. WHO says test, test and test. But how do we do that without sufficient kits?” he said.

Some of the state governments are going ahead with their own purchases and procuring from wherever source they could on an urgent basis. But the Centre has said that it had ordered purchase of 49,000 ventilators, 2.50 crore PPEs, 10 crores masks and other devices. The centre has also ordered lakhs of testing kits including those used in antibody tests from abroad and from domestic manufacturers.

“These would obviously be sent to the states only,” a senior officer in Delhi said.