Massive fires in three different warehouses of Kerala Medical Service Corporation Ltd. (KMSCL) have raised millions of eye brows in the state. The fact that fire broke out in three different districts, (Kollam on May 17, Thiruvananthapuram on May 23 and Alappuzha on May 27) within a short span of 10 days, is really disturbing. The fact that there are several allegations against the business and financial dealings of the Corporation, especially in connection with the procurements during COVID – 19, adds to the anxieties. The loss is estimated to be of several crores. There are people who believe that documents connected to alleged dealings might have ended up as ashes. Obviously this is the reason for the anxieties. Apparently, the fire broke out close on the heels of the allegations in connection with the purchase of bleaching powder. There were media reports about the purchase of bleaching powder worth Rs 1 cr while the warehouses were having comfortable stocks. As soon as the allegations came up, KMSCL asked the suppliers to take back the excess supply. But, one of the suppliers had reportedly rejected to comply with. There are suspicions regarding the order to the supplier to take back the stock; that is, to save the officers behind the decision to order for the excess supply and also due to the allegations that necessary quality checks had not been carried out before the purchase. It is reported that an officer had carried out quality tests on bleaching powder in his personal capacity; he found 62 % chlorine content while maximum permissible limit for the health sector is 32 %. Its shelf life is expected to be 2 years and should be supplied in 1 kg packets.
KMSCL is fully owned by Government of Kerala (GoK) for providing services to the various health care institutions, under the department of Family Welfare, as per Section 617 of Companies Act, 1956. A major objective of the company is to act as the central procurement agency of all essential drugs and equipment for all public health care institutions under the department. The company procures drugs and medical and hospital equipment needed for health sector. It is also assigned to set up and run all kinds of modern medical and paramedical or medical-based ancillary facilities, such as, hospitals, pathological laboratories, diagnostic centres, X-ray and scanning facilities, etc. Its functions are beneficial for over 1300 health care institutions under the Department of Health & Family Welfare, Kerala State.
The first KMSCL warehouse to be gutted was the district warehouse in Uliyamkovil, Kollam district on May 17, Wednesday, around 8.30pm. The entire warehouse and the whole cargo kept there was gutted, Even though Kerala Fire & Rescue Services personnel managed to stop the flames from spreading to the nearby houses, some natives were hospitalised owing to inhaling fumes. Health Minister Veena George told that the fire caused damages to drugs and supplies worth Rs 8 cr. But, KMSCL is unlikely to suffer the loss as the entire cargo was insured. The warehouse was the major supply source for medicines at the state-run hospitals and public health centres. Fortunately, no casualties reported so far. The health minister stated that a scientific probe would be carried out to know how did the fire break out.
The second fire occurred around 1.30am in Thiruvananthapuram on May 23, Tuesday. It was the KMSCL warehouse at KINFRA Park in Menamkulam. The incident caused not only massive loss of the cargo but also the life of a dynamic fireman J.S. Renjith (32) of Chackai Fire Station. Renjith has been reported as a young man of exemplary calibre both at work and in his native place. He had been to Kochi, with his superiors’ special permission, to join the firefighting team during Brahmapuram Dumping Ground Fire in March, 2023 even though Thiruvananthapuram was his jurisdiction. The tragedy took place when a portion of the building fell on him while he was busy in his risky job. He was pulled out from the rubbles after heavy efforts. He was declared dead when he was taken to a private hospital in the city. Again, bleaching powder is reported to be the villain. The fire was accompanied by loud explosions.
Reports suggest that four rooms were gutted within the warehouse building. About 30,000 kgs of bleaching powder was kept in one of the rooms, while 16 other medical ingredients which had crossed the expiry date in the rest of the rooms. It included sanitizer and surgical spirit. B. Sandhya IPS, Director General – Kerala Fire & Rescue Services, visited the site and told the media about the initial assessment. That is, the fire could have erupted after water or alcohol got mixed with bleaching powder stored at the place. She significantly stated that the building did not have a No Objection Certificate from her department. Now, the police may find out if there was any mystery behind the incidents in Menamkulam warehouse of KMSCL.
After couple of days, addressing the fair well parade on May 29 in Thiruvananthapuram, couple of days before the retirement from the service, B. Sandhya told that concerned departments are not complying with the fire audit of Fire & Rescue Services. These sorts of failures lead to calamities. Concerned people ignore the warnings. Fire & Rescue Services do not have any enforcement power, it can only issue notices and letters. Referring to Thanoor Boat Tragedy, of May 7, 2023, which found twenty two dead, DGP said, Fire & Rescue Services’ audit was ignored there. It is thought-provoking. She said, all should take steps to protect the life and properties of the people. The stand to abide by the rules only when police or authorities interfere is not fit for a civilised society.
B. Sandhya IPS added that renovated buildings and new buildings should have fool proof fire safety facilities. It is essential for the safety of the people. Most people do not bother to renew No Objection Certificate in this regard and fail to repair the systems if something goes wrong. B. Sandhya retires on May 31.
Health Minister ordered an investigation into the incident after the second fire took place at KMSCL warehouse. She has reportedly said that, the second fire came at a time when the KMSCL was asked to be more vigilant about its warehouses after the Kollam incident.
Then comes the third blaze during the wee hours of May 27, Tuesday. It was in the KMSCL warehouse near Government Medical College at Vandanam, Alappuzha district. It was a two room warehouse storing some 30,000 kgs of bleaching powder. The fire had almost spread to nearby main building where medicines were kept. But, it was brought under control with the help of an automatic fire suppression system in the building. However, the fire destroyed windows and air condition condenser units attached to the wall of the main building. The cause has not been detected. According to the preliminary estimates, the damages come around Rs 16 lakhs.
Opposition BJP and Congress have demanded a thorough probe into the recurring fire accidents at KMSCL warehouses in the wake of the multi crore corruption allegations over its procurement style. It is alleged that protective gears and medicines were procured at exaggerated rates without competitive bidding during COVID-19. Naturally, allegations come up regarding conspiracy behind fires to destroy the evidences.
Apparently, Lokayukta probe is going on against alleged corruption in KMSCL. Kerala High Court had, on December 8, 2022, quashed a petition against the Lokayukta probe into the scams in connection with the procurements of PPE kits and other surgical equipment during COVID – 19. The petition was filed by the former health secretary Rajan N. Khobragade challenging the proceedings initiated by Lokayukta.
Congress alleged that corruption is worth hundreds of crores. Recently when Artificial Intelligence (AI) camera purchase for the road safety turned controversial, a fire in industries minister’s office raised doubts. In August 2020, another fire took place in the protocol section of the secretariat when gold smuggle issue and the allegation against the CM and his family from the part of Swapna Suresh, an accused, hit the headlines. While the gold smuggle controversy was doing the rounds, once Swapna told the media that she had been to CM’s official residence several times for meetings, but, CCTV camera failed to produce visuals, thanks to the lightning. But, opposition parties allege that the lightning did not affect any other place in the vicinity.
Therefore, an impartial enquiry alone can reveal the truth and even culprits whether they are men or circumstances.