Massive fires in three different Kerala Medical Service Corporation Ltd. (KMSCL) warehouses have raised millions of eyebrows 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 several crores. Some people believe that documents connected to alleged dealings might have ended up as ashes. Obviously, this is the reason for the anxiety. 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 crore while the warehouses had 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 per cent chlorine content, while the maximum permissible limit for the health sector is 32per cent. Its shelf life is expected to be two years, and should be supplied in 1 kg packets.
KMSCL is fully owned by the Government of Kerala (GoK) for providing services to various healthcare institutions, under the Department of Family Welfare, as per Section 617 of the 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 healthcare institutions under the department. The company procures drugs, medical and hospital equipment needed for the 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 healthcare 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, around 8.30 pm. The entire warehouse and the whole cargo kept there were 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 said 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 have been reported so far. The Health Minister stated that a scientific probe would be carried out to know how the fire broke out.
The second fire occurred around 1.30 am in Thiruvananthapuram on May 23. It was the KMSCL warehouse at KINFRA Park in Menamkulam. The incident caused not only a 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. With his superiors’ special permission, he had been to Kochi to join the firefighting team during Brahmapuram Dumping Ground Fire in March 2023, even though Thiruvananthapuram was his jurisdiction. The tragedy occurred when a portion of the building fell on him while he was busy with his risky job. He was pulled out from the rubble 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. Loud explosions accompanied the fire.
Reports suggest that four rooms were gutted within the warehouse building. About 30,000 kgs of bleaching powder were 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 sanitiser 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 the Menamkulam warehouse of KMSCL.
After a couple of days, addressing the farewell parade on May 29 in Thiruvananthapuram, a couple of days before the service’s retirement, B Sandhya said 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 the Tanur 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 foolproof fire safety facilities. It is essential for the safety of the people. Most people do not bother to renew the 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 the KMSCL warehouse. She had reportedly said that the second fire occurred 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. 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 the 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 to 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.
The Lokayukta probe is going on against alleged corruption in KMSCL. On December 8, 2022, Kerala High Court 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 former health secretary Rajan N Khobragade filed the petition challenging the proceedings initiated by Lokayukta.
Congress alleged that corruption is worth hundreds of crores. Recently when Artificial Intelligence (AI) camera purchases for road safety turned controversial, a fire in the industries minister’s office raised doubts. In August 2020, another fire took place in the protocol section of the secretariat when the gold smuggling issue and the allegation against the CM and his family from the part of Swapna Suresh, an accused, hit the headlines. While the gold smuggles controversy was doing the rounds, Swapna told the media that she had been to CM’s official residence several times for meetings. However, due to the lighting, the CCTV camera failed to produce visuals. 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.