The extraordinary visuals in news channels of ambulances lined up outside hospitals waiting for beds to become available, of patients gasping for life as critical oxygen supplies run out and the desperate appeals for help which have flooded social media highlight the appalling crisis faced by the nation as it battles the second, deadly resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic. As states fought each other to secure scarce oxygen supplies for themselves, we have had the extraordinary situation of high courts around the country demanding that the government come up with a plan at short notice to solve the crisis. In fact, the Delhi High Court went so far as to advise the Centre to ‘beg, borrow or steal’ oxygen supplies for Delhi hospitals facing an acute shortage, so that the very basic essential for life – oxygen – is at least made available.
Even as the Centre swung belatedly into action, ordering unrestricted movement of oxygen tankers across the country and pressed the Railways and the Indian Air Force into service to urgently move medical oxygen from eastern India, where production capacity is concentrated, to Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and other acutely impacted states in the west and north, even as various states alleged either partial treatment or outright hijacking of their supplies by states en route. The Supreme Court has been forced to step in and ask the Centre to come up with a national-level plan to tackle the oxygen crisis at the earliest.
This must be done on a war footing. The Centre must step in to ensure that there is a proper and equitable distribution of medical oxygen supplies among needy states. Moreover, the allocation and distribution must be done in a fair and transparent manner, so that there can be no grounds for charges of political bias or favouritism to be made,
The Centre must press in all the resources at its command, including the Armed Forces and Central paramilitary forces, to ensure that the ugly spectacle of ‘oxygen wars’ breaking out between states does not happen. To ensure unimpeded movement, the Centre must follow up Thursday’s orders issued by the Home Ministry by invoking emergency powers, if need be, to ensure that local administrations do not misuse their powers to prevent oxygen manufacturers from meeting their contractual obligations to other states.
It is a matter of grave concern that this crisis of oxygen was an entirely avoidable one. With a manufacturing capacity of 7,000 tonnes per day of oxygen, India is in a position to meet the current surge in requirement for medical oxygen, by temporarily diverting it from industrial uses. However, the cylinders needed to store this output and the cryogenic tankers to ferry the liquid oxygen are in short supply. It is shocking that these issues were foreseen by both the government’s own empowered committee and the parliamentary standing committee on health nearly a year ago, when the Covid crisis first hit, but nothing was done. Accountability must be fixed at the highest level for this lapse which has led to hundreds of avoidable deaths.