Another Maharashtra minister under cloud over contracts, Tawde denies allegations of wrongdoings

After a controversy over his alleged fake educational qualification, Maharashtra Education Minister Vinod Tawde was on Tuesday accused of "irregularities" in awarding a contract worth Rs.191 crore (Rs.1.91 billon) without inviting tenders

Troubles mounted for the Fadnavis government in Maharashtra today with a second minister coming under a cloud over award of a Rs 191 crore contract without inviting tenders.

The allegations against Education Minister Vinod Tawde came within days of Women and Child Development Minister Pankaja Munde facing similar accusations in awarding contracts for various purchases worth Rs 206 crore on a single day in February without following the mandatory e-tendering process.

The matter relates to the Education department issuing a Government Resolution authorising the office of the Education Director (Primary) to enter into a contract for supply of 62,105 fire extinguishers for Zilla Parishad schools across the state on February 11 without inviting tenders.

Each fire extinguisher was to be procured at a price of Rs 8,321 and each school was to be provided three pieces. The contract, cleared by Tawde, has, however, been put on hold after the Finance Department objected to it and sought a probe, official sources said.

Vinod Tawde
Vinod Tawde

The first-ever BJP-led government in Maharashtra has made e-tendering of contracts mandatory for all purchases above Rs three lakh.

Tawde, a key minister in the Devendra Fadnavis government, however, claimed no irregularity was committed as contractors had not been paid. 

"Not a single rupee has been paid to contractors. We stopped the order immediately after the Finance Department raised objections," Tawde told reporters today. 

Top BJP ministers in the Fadnavis government were quick to jump to his defence.

At a hurriedly convened press conference this afternoon, Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said, "The Opposition is making a mountain out of molehill". 

Flanked by Mungantiwar and Cooperatives Minister Chandrakant Patil, Tawde said he had only complied with a Supreme Court order on providing fire-fighting equipment to schools.

About Rs 6-crore worth equipment was delivered but no payment has been made, Tawde said.

Though BJP ministers came to the defence of a beleagured Tawde, faultlines were visible, yet again, in the party's ties with Shiv Sena, a junior partner in the Fadnavis government.

Sena MP Arvind Sawant said both Tawde and Munde should step down and face a probe.

"When such an incident had happened during Balasaheb's (Bal Thackeray) time, he asked for proof against his minister. When he prima facie found substance in the material given to him, he asked his minister to resign, face an inquiry and asked him to come out clean.

"He had categorically told his minister that he would be reinstated if he comes clean in the inquiry. Similar standards
should be applied here. Why be scared of an inquiry?" Sawant told PTI.

Referring to the allegations against Munde, Sawant said, "Uddhavji had said allegations against her are serious. The CM is competent enough to look into the matter. We are waiting for his statement now.

Munde, daughter of late Gopinath Munde, a BJP stalwart from Maharashtra, has been accused of clearing purchases worth Rs 206 crore for various articles like snacks, books, dishes, water filters, mats etc for schools under the Integrated Child Development Services.

Fadnavis had defended Pankaja, saying the funds would have expired had purchases not been cleared in time. He had also said the e-tendering practice was introduced by his government in April this year, while purchases were cleared in February. 

In his defence, Tawde said Rs 18 crore had been earmarked for buying fire extinguishers in the Education department's budget. However, implementing an apex court order for providing fire-fighting equipment to schools would have cost Rs 191 crore.

"I (the department) had Rs 18 crore. I could have easily purchased equipment worth that amount. If I were to comply with the SC order, I would have needed Rs 191 crore. I asked Finance Department what should I do?

"There was already a provision of Rs 18 crore made by earlier Congress government for purchase of fire-fighting equipment in schools," Tawde said.

"Had we wanted, we could have ordered equipment based on that provision. However, we approached the finance department, asking about providing the equipment to all the schools. That amount came to Rs 191 crore. That is what is being referred to as the 'Rs 191 crore scam' despite the fact that not a single rupee has been given to anyone," Tawde said. 

Cooperatives Minister Chandrakant Patil said the then Congress government had decided to order fire extinguishers
after over 100 students had been killed in a blaze in Tamil Nadu and stipulated installing the equipment in schools.

"If there are such baseless allegations, we won't do such essential things (procure equipment) even if there is contempt of court," Patil said.

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