In June last year, when the cases of COVID were rising rapidly and threatening to go out of control, the Tamil Nadu government sensed the need for a large number of masks to help it fight the pandemic. Since the number of masks required to cover the huge population ran into crores, it decided to use the services of private manufacturers to supply the requisite quantity and to distribute them through the PDS shops to ensure wider reach. But now those manufacturers are crying foul and allege that the government has left them in the lurch.
The state has 2.08 ration card holders with 6.74 crore family members. The government decided to distribute two masks per person, or 13.48 crore masks, for free in July, when the government officially kicked off the scheme. When the government contacted the manufacturers, they said they would need six months to supply the almost 13.5 crore masks.
The government agreed to procure the masks over six months and also to make the payments for all the masks. But the manufacturers allege that it stopped taking the masks after two months and also did not make the promised payments, dealing a severe financial blow to many of them who are essentially small and medium enterprises (SMEs). They allege that the government has distributed only 2.50 crore masks till now.
“At the height of COVID-19 lockdown, the government wanted to distribute the 14 crore masks in a single month. When it floated the tender, companies said they would need at least six months to meet the demand,” said Chandrasekhar, a fabric dealer based in Erode who is also involved in manufacturing masks.
About 24 companies responded to the tenders, of which 13 were selected to supply the masks. Most of them were from districts like Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode and Salem — regions where the garment industry is very active. The government started distributing the masks from July.
“But, so far only 2.50 crore people have received the masks through the PDS. This means the remaining 60 per cent of masks manufactured have not been distributed by the government,” alleges Chandrasekhar. “The government ensured that every ration card holder got the promised ₹2,500 ahead of Pongal. Why can’t it then also make sure that those very card holders get the masks, too?” he asks.
The companies that got the orders from the government outsourced the work to smaller garment units that employed widows and members from women self-help groups.
“The agreement was for six months. But the government took our products only in the first two months and paid for it. After that, it has neither taken the remaining stock nor paid us for it. As a result, we are not able to pay wages to the people who were involved in manufacturing them,” said Kiruba Sankar, the public relations officer of ESM Textiles in the Virudhunagar district. “But we hear that in many ration shops, they make fake entries to show masks have been distributed to ration card holders.”
The government asked the companies to manufacture 14 crore masks, but only six crore have been taken from them till now, said A Chandrasekaran, proprietor Anitha Texcot Private Limited in Tiruppur district.
“After taking the six crore masks, officials gave us an oral order to keep producing the masks till the tender period of six months gets over. But they haven’t taken the remaining stocks from us. In our case, our own employees manufactured the masks, and we managed to pay them the wages. But the companies that passed on the work to smaller units are suffering,” he said.
These companies source the fabric needed for manufacturing the masks and give it to smaller garment units, which largely employ women to cut and stitch the masks. When the masks are made, the companies take the stock and supply it to the godowns of Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation (TNCSC), under which ration shops function. From the godowns, the masks are taken to each ration shop and distributed to the card holders.
“The government gave the orders to manufacture the masks in three colours — dark green, light green and light blue. The fabric needed for these masks is made up of pure cotton. According to the tender, the companies must sell the masks to the government at the rate of ₹6.45 per piece. The companies passed on the order to smaller units, by promising to pay ₹2.50 per piece for the labourers. In Erode district alone, about 20,000 people are engaged in this work, but most of them have not been paid their wages,” alleged Chandrasekhar, the fabric dealer quoted earlier.
Raja, who runs a small tailoring unit in Salem district, claimed that companies owe him about ₹10 lakh for the masks he supplied.
“I have employed about 5,000 people for this task. The quality and quantity of the masks produced in a day vary as per the wage the companies offer for a piece. Due to the government’s non-payment, units in the western districts of the state have been affected. They were unable to celebrate Diwali due to lack of money. When the government is able to give ₹2,500 for Pongal, why can’t it pay us the wages?” he asked.
The Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation is responsible only for the distribution of the masks. The purchasing is done by Tamil Nadu Disaster Reduction Agency, which operates under the Commissionerate of Revenue Administration and Disaster Management.
A senior official of the commissionerate told The Federal that the companies that have submitted their invoices are being paid and the masks are continuing to be distributed. “We ask the district collectors whether the companies have supplied the stocks according to the invoices. When the collectors give the NoC (no objection certificate), we make the payments. We are going to complete the payments process soon,” the official said.