‘All the tests by the laboratories were being done under the direct supervision of the state government medical officers’

 

New Delhi: The alleged Covid-19 testing scam that took place during the recent Kumbh event in Haridwar has brought the focus on the government medical officers who were responsible for ensuring that the private players involved in testing the devotees did their job properly.

While the state government has booked the three private players who were a part of the testing setup—the company that signed the contract with the state government to provide the Covid-19 testing setups and the two private laboratories who actually did the testing on the ground—not a single state government official has been named in the FIR for dereliction of duty.

The focus of the investigation being done by the Uttarakhand police is revolving around Max Corporate Services which was awarded contract for carrying out the Covid-19 tests and the two laboratories, Nalwa Labs and Dr Lalchandani Labs, both of whom, as per documents seen by The Sunday Guardian, are approved by ICMR and have NABL accreditation. The two laboratories accused of conducting fake tests during the Mahakumbh have already approached the Uttarakhand High Court on 21 June to quash an FIR against them.

Close to 90 lakh devotees had visited the Haridwar Kumbh this year with the maximum number of them visiting Haridwar in April. Max Corporate Services is owned by the husband-wife duo of Sharat Pant and Mallika Pant, whose Facebook profiles are filled with pictures of them sharing stage and frames with top BJP leaders, including party presidents, state presidents, CMs and Union ministers which has added the political twist into the alleged scam, with the state Congress claiming that the Pants got the contract because of their proximity to the BJP leaders as is visible from the photographs that they have displayed in their social media profile.

The Uttarakhand High Court, on 29 June, while hearing the petition of the Pants seeking protection from their arrest in the case, ordered the state police not to arrest them while directing the duo to present themselves in front of the Investigating Officer of the case whenever called for.

The Uttarakhand police believe that the number of people who were actually tested during the religious congregation was much lower than what was claimed and charged for by the three accused companies and their owners. As per the Pants, they got the contract after taking part in the tendering process and submitting a rate per test that was lower than the others who had participated in the bid process.

According to them, they submitted the relevant documents to the government that showed their tie-up with the two laboratories and the fact that everything—from the manpower needed to conduct the tests and the equipment—would be provided by the laboratories.

The contract document seen by The Sunday Guardian confirms that manpower, machinery, materials and report generation was to be done by the laboratories and not by Max Corporate Services. “We were just service providers. None of our staff was present at the time of testing and data entry. All the tests by the laboratories were being done under the direct supervision of the state government medical officers and everything was happening in front of their eyes. If a ‘scam’ was happening, why didn’t the state government officials and the CMO, raise any objection during the more than one month long process? We are being targeted as the state police need a scapegoat and they need someone to satisfy the media trial in view of the forthcoming state elections. We just want a fair investigation in the case and not one that is media driven,” Narayan Har Gupta, the lawyer representing the Pants, told The Sunday Guardian.

As per Gupta, the Uttarakhand High Court, while stopping any “discriminatory arrest”, has stated that the Investigating Officer in the case will comply with the law laid down by the Supreme Court in the landmark judgment in Arnesh Kumar vs state of Bihar that prohibits arbitrary arrest and states that the IO has to record in writing the reason why he wants to arrest the accused.

The laboratories, as per the FIR, collected the samples from 13 April to 16 May during which 104796 samples were collected in which the positivity rate was found to be 0.18 % which was much less than 5.3 % positivity rate that was prevailing in Haridwar at that time.

However, Gupta told The Sunday Guardian that the samples were collected between 1 April and 29 April. When reached for his response on why did the state and district medical officers, who were present at the Kumbh site, did not raise any red flag during the entire one month when the alleged scam was taking place, the Chief Medical Officer of Haridwar, Dr Shambhu Kumar Jha, who is also the complainant in the case, told The Sunday Guardian that he would not be commenting on the matter as it was sub-judice and the investigation was happening in the entire incident.

According to the submission made by Gupta in the High Court, Pant’s firm simply followed the orders of the local medical officers and the state police on the issue of where to set up the testing stalls. While adding that details of the devotees who were taking the Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) and uploading the same on the ICMR website was being done by the officials of the laboratories under the direct supervision of the state government medical officers present at the Kumbh site. As per the chronology of the case, the Uttarakhand state government released a tender for the carrying out mass testing of Covid-19 during Kumbh mela on 31 December 2020, while the same was awarded to the Pants on 26 March 2021 and subsequently an FIR registered against the them and the three laboratories on 17 June under the Epidemic Act, Disaster Management Act and relevant sections of the IPC.