How Himanta Biswa Sarma broke rules to buy PPE kits from China


Assam became the first state in India to buy Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) directly from China. A Blue Dart cargo flying straight from Guangzhou carrying 50,000 PPE kits landed in Guwahati airport on April 15 evening. Till then, only the Union government had been buying PPE kits from foreign countries.

At a time, when global cargo movements are limited and demands for PPE have grown manifold in the world’s top countries, this direct procurement by a state needed out-of-the-box thinking and bending of government rules.

For an official order placed by the Government of Assam, and also billed to it, the payment — nearly Rs 15 crore — was made in advance by 10 private individuals, on behalf of the government, directly to the supplier. Assam government had placed an order for 50,000 PPE kit on March 29 to a Delhi-based supplier. The supplier took the order, worth nearly Rs 15 crore, only on one condition — the payment has to be made in advance. According to the norms, the government doesn’t make an advance payment.

It’s then Assam’s health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who also happens to be Assam’s PWD minister, decided to tweak some rules. He got in touch with a dozen government contractors and asked them to pay the advance amount to the supplier. Ten of them agreed and made an electronic transfer of around Rs 15 crore to the supplier. There was a verbal agreement that the supplier will return the money to the contractors when the Assam government will make the official payment, post-delivery. “I told the contractors that there was every possibility they might not get the money back. But they were more than happy to help the government in this hour of crisis,” Sarma said.

But his problem was not over yet. The supplier had promised that the kits will be flown in from Hong Kong in a commercial flight on April 2. But the boxes containing the kits needed to be loaded in the flight within two hours. If a flight stops for more than two hours, the pilot and crew have to go for quarantine for two weeks. In that situation, not many flights were willing to risk more than two hours stop-over for an order of 50,000 kits to one state of India. “There were so many flights going to the US and other European countries with a much bigger order value. The supplier expressed his inability to load kits within two hours,” Sarma said.

It’s when Sarma dialed Ranjit Borthakur and Dr Tarun Sahni. Borthakur is an environmentalist and CEO of IPL team Rajasthan Royals. Sahni is a doctor working at Delhi’s Apollo Hospital. Both are actively involved in the activities of Smile India in Assam.

Sarma requested them to get in touch with Chinese counterparts of Smile India – a part of Smile Asia — and help the supplier in prioritising the order at the customs and in the airport in China. Accordingly, all hurdles were cleared, and the kits were ready to fly.

Meanwhile, luckily for Sarma, Blue Dart started its operations in India from April 15. With his connections in the Union government and the Chinese network of Borthakur and Sahni, Sarma arranged for a five-hour-long cargo flight to directly fly from Guangzhou to Guwahati.

However, the last hurdle was yet to be crossed. It took the innovative Assam minister another 24 hours and several phone calls to Delhi to get the kits out of Guwahati airport. However, thanks to these kits, Assam now has 2,00,000 PPE kits, of which 10,000 were donated by Mukesh Ambani. “Mukesh Ambani called me and wanted to donate some money to the government. I asked him to supply PPE, instead. Within a week, he arranged for 10,000 PPE kits,” says Sarma.

The health minister has been walking — and flying — extra miles to procure PPE kits for the state, which he believes, will play a crucial role in combatting Covid-19 if the number of patients scales up. In the last week of March, his deputy in health ministry Pijush Hazarika went to Delhi in a chartered flight to bring home just 1500 PPE kits. The fact that Sarma is also the finance minister helps in getting faster clearances for these extraordinary measures in these extraordinary times.

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About the author: Sohom Das
Founder of Tuccho.

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