States must share the blame

A Covid-19 patient (R) receives free oxygen provided by a gurduwara in Indirapuram in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad. Photo: PTI
It’s been an extraordinary week for many state governments who have all been taken to the cleaners by high courts for doing next to nothing to prepare for the devastating second wave now washing through the county.

Consider the tone of some of these observations. At a time when Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is peddling his “no shortage” theory on oxygen, the Allahabad High Court has observed that those in power must shun the attitude of “my way or no way”. His counterparts in other states have not been spared either. The Gujarat High Court said the state government seems to be “functioning only on paper,” while the Bombay High Court came down heavily on the Maharashtra government’s “extremely callous behaviour”.

The same fate awaited the Delhi government. In a strong indictment of the state’s handling of the crisis, the Delhi High Court said its confidence was “shaken” and that if the state government can’t manage the situation, the court will ask the Centre to step in.

Looking at the human misery brought about by the oxygen famine, the stinging criticism by the courts is fully justified. State after state (except Kerala which managed to increase its daily medical oxygen stock to 219 MT in April from 99.39 MT in the same month last year) have simply done nothing to prepare and implement an emergency plan. According to a Union health ministry document, it had invited bids for new oxygen plants in October last year. Of the 162 that were sanctioned, only 33 have been installed so far. Reason: State governments have simply not given the necessary land certification. For the national capital, eight such plants were approved, but the Delhi government could install just one such plant. The government counsel could not even tell the court whether it was functional or not.

What the health ministry didn’t say was that it was in-charge of installation of the plants and took almost zero follow-up action against the truant states. That is just one example of how both the Centre and states should take equal share of the blame. According to a report in The Indian Express, as many as 11 empowered groups were set up in March 2020, as a specific response to Covid-19. They were supposed to act as quick response teams and ensure coordination between the Centre and states on specific tasks. The oxygen crisis shows how little they have done, and how they wasted the nearly five-month lull in the public health emergency, from mid-September to mid-February.

In view of such inaction, the Centre’s grandiose statement that it would set up oxygen plants in 551 districts of the country and the budget for this will be met by the PM CARES Fund lacks credibility and looks like playing to the gallery. The politicking over oxygen has been nauseating. INOX, the country’s largest oxygen maker, told the Delhi High Court this week that four tankers which were being brought to Delhi for meeting the oxygen shortage were taken under control by the central government. The company also said its supplies for Delhi have been cut down by the Centre and the majority of its production has been allocated to Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The sheer helplessness of the situation is evident from the Delhi High Court’s observation last week: “As it stands, we all know this country is being run by God”. Unless the judges are referring to anybody in particular in the central government, it sums up the universal impression that people desperate for oxygen have been left to fend for themselves.  

To be fair, no one could have possibly anticipated the magnitude of the crisis. Until 2019, before the pandemic hit, India required just 750-800 metric tonnes of liquid medical oxygen; the rest was for industrial use. The oxygen demand which had not surpassed 1,500 MT during the first wave has now increased to over 6,000 MT. Even this should not have been a problem as officially, India’s daily oxygen production capacity is 7,127 MT.

But the real problem has been supply chain management. The facilities from where Delhi now receives oxygen are spread across seven states, some more than 1,000 km away, according to a court document. Transportation is a challenge as the special cryogenic tankers have to follow a specific speed limit — no more than 40km an hour. Government data shows India has just 1,172 oxygen cryogenic tankers for road transport. The tankers served the purpose well until before the pandemic, but now they are scarce. Such tankers cost over Rs 50 lakh each and companies are reluctant to buy them because once the immediate crisis is over, that investment will turn into losses.

So, the shortage was inevitable to an extent given the tsunami of Covid cases, but the problem is the lack of even basic preparation by both the Centre and states. A sharp drop in cases by January lulled the country into a false sense of safety, leading to brave claims about conquering Covid. In the process, even planned projects got a quiet burial. Result: People are dying in droves, not of the disease so much as a lack of medical oxygen.



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