Feature: A firm with links to BJP is at the heart of the Kumbh COVID testing scam

(The Wire)

Mumbai: Max Corporate Services, the company accused of conducting nearly one lakh fake COVID tests during the recent Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, has links with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that might have played a role in its selection by the Uttarakhand authorities despite failing to make the grade earlier, an investigation by The Wire has revealed.

Evidence with The Wire reveals how the founder-partner of the company, Sharat Pant, hobnobbed with senior BJP leaders and ministers of the Modi government, including party chief J.P. Nadda, in the run-up to being awarded the contract.

According to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs database, Max’s founder-directors are Sharat and Mallika Pant.

Pant’s family also has links to the BJP – his uncle, Bhupesh Joshi was a close aide of the late Union parliamentary affairs minister Ananth Kumar.

Joshi, when contacted by The Wire, confirmed that he had worked with Kumar and said he continued to serve in a Union ministry but refused to disclose his designation. He insisted that his proximity to senior leaders had nothing to do with Pant bagging the contract.

Sharat Pant and his uncle Bhupesh Joshi with Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat.

Both have even posted photos of a joint meeting they held with Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat. It is not clear when this meeting took place. Rawat did not respond to text messages and phone calls by The Wire.

This proximity, though, has possibly kept Pant’s firm in good stead.

Sharat Pant with J.P. Nadda.

Max is currently at the heart of alleged irregularities worth over Rs 3 crore, after evidence emerged in a probe that nearly 98,000-odd tests that the company claimed to have conducted, through its two partner labs, were possibly fake.

The Wire’s investigations showed that Max was awarded the contract by the Kumbh Mela administration to conduct COVID-19 testing during the month-long festival, despite the Haridwar collectorate rejecting its application after finding the firm ineligible for such work.

There is also mounting evidence to suggest that local officials ignored the firm’s wrongdoings instead of halting it in its tracks. An ongoing probe into the issue has found that Max raised bills for conducting tests even before it had officially started working on the ground. But even this did not raise alarm bells and the firm was allowed to continue its work, sources privy to the inquiry contend.

A top official in the Uttarakhand state government, on the condition of anonymity, admitted that Pant was “highly influential,” adding that there had been “numerous attempts to influence and pressurise” the ongoing inquiry into the scam.

A simultaneous reading of the contract’s progress and posts on Pant’s Facebook wall explain why that might be the case.

Why the collectorate rejected Max’s application

In January, the Kumbh administration, through the state government’s health department as well as the Haridwar collectorate, issued separate expressions of interest (EOI), looking for private testing laboratories who could be empanelled to conduct mass-testing of pilgrims coming to the Kumbh in April 2021.

Uttarakhand was then headed by chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat.

While that process was underway, Pant met senior BJP leaders and ministers in the Modi government, including Nadda, Nishank and Irani in January and early February. The Wiremade numerous attempts to reach the three leaders, via repeated emails and text messages, but there was no response from them.

What transpired in these meetings is not known. But Pant has posted photos with them, claiming that he got Nadda’s “guidance” and Irani’s “blessings”.

For instance, on January 28, Pant has posted three photos with a smiling Irani, purportedly at her residence, where he mentions meeting her that day and thanks her from the “core of my heart” for her “blessings”.

Less than a week later, on February 3, he met Nadda and said he was “guided” by the BJP chief. “Aapke margadarshan ke liye, aapka koti koti dhanyavaad. Jay Uttarakhand, Jay Shri Ram [Thank you so very much for you guidance. Hail Uttarakhand, hail Lord Ram].”

But even as these meetings were taking place, Pant was trying to bag the contract to conduct COVID tests at the Kumbh Mela, a job officials said his firm was not qualified for at all.

Haridwar collector C. Ravishankar told The Wire that the district administration had received a proposal from Pant’s company.

“To be selected for this work, a company needs to fulfil three criterions – it has to be a lab, it needs to be NABL-accredited,” he said, referring to the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories, “and it needs to be approved by the ICMR.” Max, he said, “fulfilled none of these conditions, so its proposal was rejected outrightly.”

According to an official who was part of a panel appointed to scrutinise all applications, Max’s application was “highly unusual”.

“We wanted to test incoming pilgrims and hence, we were seeking applications only from labs. Why should we appoint a company which has no expertise nor capacity to conduct tests at all?”

On its website, Max said its expertise was that it had “built an extensive network of candidate and client relationships,” and lists its services as engineering and project management, facility management, health and safety management, recruitment, landscaping among others.

When it applied to the Haridwar collectorate, the company claimed that it had tied up with some laboratories to conduct the tests, but the official quoted above said that it could not provide any document to back the claim.

Also read: Kumbh Mela Shahi Snans Biggest Super-Spreaders in Pandemic’s History: Dr Ashish Jha

While Ravishankar was unable to pinpoint the exact date of Max’s rejection, highly-placed sources in the state administration said that this happened just around the time that Trivendra Singh Rawat mysteriously resigned on March 9 as chief minister of Uttarakhand.

The very next day, the BJP decided to appoint Tirath Singh Rawat as the state’s chief minister. The same day, Pant uploaded photos of the new chief minister, congratulating him on his appointment.

Under new chief minister, Max get contracts, red flags ignored

But over two weeks after Pant’s application had been rejected by the district administration, a similar application made by Max to the Kumbh Mela administration – which officials said reported directly to the state government and not to the collectorate – got approved and the contract was issued to Pant’s company on March 26.

According to Dr Arjun Singh Senger, the officer for health in the Kumbh administration, Max was approved by the administration after scrutinising their documents. “They had provided us letters by two labs, Nalwa Labs and Dr Lalchandani Labs, authorising Max to represent them. They had also provided the ICMR approvals granted to both these labs, so we empanelled them as one of the many labs to conduct tests for us,” he told The Wire.

According to the terms of the empanelment, Max was to be paid Rs 354 for every rapid antigen test they conducted and Rs 500 for every RT-PCR test they conducted, while they would get Rs 400 if the sample was collected by local government officials.

An ongoing probe ordered by the Haridwar collectorate has revealed how the irregularities began soon after Max bagged the contract.

Officials said that said that each agency was going to be provided a username and password to an online portal by the Haridwar Chief Medical Officer, for entering data about all the tests that they conduct. “Tests were only supposed to start after those details were provided, but Max sent us bills of tests that they claim to have conducted even before they were given the login details of the portal, which is very difficult to believe,” said an official, who is part of the probe team.

Local officials said that these “red flags” should have alerted the Kumbh officials who had awarded Max the work. “Officially, Mela officials were supposed to be present while these empanelled labs conduct tests. Each lab was allotted specific spaces and officials were supposed to track them, but nothing like this happened in Max’s case,” said the probe officer.

At this point, the probe team is verifying the contact details of all the tests that Max claimed to have conducted. “We are calling up each person listed by them. Most are not answering the phone, many numbers are wrong,” said an official in the probe team.

Aspirant for BJP ticket

Despite repeated attempts to reach him via email and messages as well as requests placed through his lawyer, Pant did not respond to The Wire.

Political ambitions? A poster released on Holi this year.

But a relative of his, speaking to The Wireon the condition of anonymity, said that Pant, who has political ambitions, is eyeing a ticket from the BJP for next year’s state assembly polls.

Pant hails from Dwarahat town in the central Uttarakhand district of Almora. The seat is currently occupied by the BJP’s Mahesh Singh Negi, who has been accused of rape. Multiple sources both in the party and close to Pant confirmed that he was eyeing the seat.

A local source in Dwarahat, who knows Pant closely, said that the scandal was unlikely to hurt him much as he was backed by “big leaders” in the BJP. “Pant ki ticket pakki hai, unko clean chit mil jaayegi [He will certainly be given the ticket, as well as a clean chit],” he said.

A former Congress MLA in Dwarahat, Madan Singh Bisht, said that Pant had become “active” in the constituency over the last few months, a possible sign of his attempt to enter politics.

“Through the last two months of the lockdown, Pant supplied food aid to locals under the banner of the BJP. He has become active very recently,” he said.

But the controversy is likely to cast a shadow over these ambitions.

Investigators close in

The Haridwar police has filed an FIR against Max as well as the two private labs that it had entered into partnerships with, over the alleged fake testing scam.

All three entities have been booked under various sections of the Epidemic Act, 1897, the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, including Section 120B (criminal conspiracy), Section 188 (punishment for disobedience to an order duly promulgated by a public servant), Section 420 (cheating), Section 468 (forgery) and Section 471 (fraudulently using as genuine any document or electronic record). If convicted, the accused can face imprisonment which may extend to seven years along with fines.

On Wednesday, the Uttarakhand high court, hearing a plea by Max, refused to quash the FIR but has granted Pant’s partner, Mallika, protection from “arbitrary arrest,” the company’s lawyer, Kartikeya Hari Gupta said.

Max’s troubles are unlikely to end anytime soon. Both partners, Nalwa and Dr Lalchandani labs, have followed suit and filed similar petitions before the Uttarakhand high court.

Lalchandani labs have said that it had conducted only 12,000 tests during the Kumbh festival. Nalwa Labs has already said that it had not received any payment from Max nor did it send any technicians to Kumbh for collecting samples.

Gupta, Pant’s lawyer, rebuffed these allegations and called Nalwa’s claims “absurd”. Gupta said that Max was only a “facilitator” and the Kumbh administration knew this.

“As part of our tender, we were allowed to do contracts with nationally-accredited labs and we did that. We have correspondence to prove that the labs were working on the ground,” he said.

He said that Max, as a ‘facilitator’, did not have any of its personnel on the ground. “We did not have men on the ground, the labs had sent their men on the ground to collect samples and organise testing.”

Gupta, however, also pointed to the supervision of Mela authorities over the tests.

“The tests were conducted in the presence of government officials and police personnel. So, whatever happened, happened in public,” he said.

Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist, writing on politics, gender, development, migration and the intersections between them.

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