New Delhi: Even as people frantically search for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds, and desperate queries about their availability flood the social media, it has now come to light that the Centre had advance warning about a possible shortage of life-supporting gas in the country.
A national newspaper has reported that the central government officials and a parliamentary panel had warned the government last year about the possible shortage and the subsequent crisis.
The government had floated tenders in October last for setting up 162 oxygen manufacturing units across the country. Only 33 materialized after eight months.
The Central government received the first clear warning shortly after COVID-19 had been declared as a pandemic. One of the 11 empowered groups of officers the Centre had constituted for formulating and implementing an effective defence against COVID-19 warned of a possible shortage a full year ago on April 1, 2020.
It is now learned that the topic of oxygen shortage had come up in the second meeting of Empowered Group-6 (EG-6) set up to coordinate with the private sector and non-government organizations for an appropriate and effective COVID-19 response.
“In the coming days, India could face a shortage of oxygen supplies. To address this, CII should coordinate with the Indian Gas Association and formulate plans to mitigate the lack of oxygen supply,” the minutes of the meeting said.
The meeting had also decided that the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) would look into the matter. Four days after the meeting, a nine-member committee under the chairmanship of DPIIT Secretary Guruprasad Mohapatra was formed to ensure adequate medical-grade oxygen in the wake of the pandemic.
It has to be noted that the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in the country was just above 2,000 when the meeting was convened.
The daily consumption of medical-grade oxygen shot up to 3,000 metric tonnes during the peak (September 24-25, 2020) last year from the normal 1,000 metric tonnes.
The second warning was issued by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare under the Chairmanship of Samajwadi Party’s Rajya Sabha member Ramgopal Yadav.
The then central Health Secretary, Rajesh Bhushan, had spoken about the use and benefits of oxygen in treating COVID-19 patients at a meeting of the committee on October 16, 2020. A report tabled in the Rajya Sabha on November 21, 2020, revealed that the Centre had instructed the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority to regulate the price of oxygen.
The report, “The Outbreak of Pandemic Covid,” referred to the health secretary’s statement that the medical sector had been using 1,000 metric tonnes of oxygen before the outbreak of COVID-19, and the remaining 6,000 tonnes had been used for industrial purposes. Hence, the availability of medical oxygen should be ensured and its price should be put under check.
“The committee strongly recommends regulating the price of oxygen cylinders and to ensure the availability of medical oxygen. Oxygen cylinders should be ensured for medical use and hospitals. Plans should be formulated to produce adequate oxygen,” the committee’s report said. Adoor Prakash, the MP from Attingal, is a member of the committee.
Despite the committee’s recommendations, the Centre issued an order banning the distribution of oxygen for industrial use only on April 22, 2021. By then 60 per cent of the total oxygen production had been earmarked exclusively for medical purposes. A meeting scheduled to discuss the crisis arising out of the COVID situation on April 9 was postponed.
The tendering process for setting up 150 pressure swing adsorption (PSA) oxygen plants had commenced in October 2020. The aim was to set up PSA units attached to hospitals and produce 80,500 litres of oxygen a minute. The Centre later increased the units to 162 and allotted Rs 201.58 crore.
According to a Central health ministry report issued on April 18, only 33 units have been made functional. Though cost-effective, oxygen produced at PSA plants won’t be as pure as liquid oxygen but would have met the needs of the hospitals and avoided the present crisis.
An independent agency under the central government, Central Medical Services Society, invited tenders for setting up PSA plants in December last. Several impediments, impediments, cropped up when the process to set up plants began in government hospitals, thereby delaying the plan.
A health ministry tweet on April 18 said 33 of the planned 162 plants have become functional. Another 59 will be functional April-end, followed by 80 more by May-end.
A single PSA plant would cost Rs 33 lakh, and it can produce oxygen equal to 24 cylinders. A hospital with 40 ICU beds normally consumes Rs 5 lakh worth of oxygen a month normally. PSA plants are suitable for such hospitals, experts said.
Oxygen produced by PSA plants would be 93 per cent pure, while the liquid oxygen produced using cryogenic technology would be 99 per cent pure.
India exported 4,514 metric tonnes of oxygen during the financial year 2019-20. The export increased to 9,301 metric tonnes during the period April 2020 to January 2021. The need for oxygen has been on the rise, and it has to be noted that the country has been using 7,282 metric tonnes of liquid oxygen a day.
Meanwhile, there is an argument that distribution, not availability, has been causing the shortage. Cryogenic tankers are required for shipping liquid oxygen. The country does not have an adequate number of such tankers.
India has about 500 plants producing liquid oxygen, and several big hospitals have tanks to store oxygen. Liquid oxygen has to be stored and shipped at a temperature of -183 degree Celsius.
Apparently, the Centre and other states ignored Maharashtra’s increased demand for oxygen when the COVID-19 caseload went up in February. Currently, the oxygen demand is over 5,000 metric tonne. Though the Centre had banned oxygen for industrial use from April 22, nine specific industries exempted from prohibition require 2,500 metric tonnes a day.
The Centre has 50,000 metric tonnes of oxygen in its reserve, but whether it would be adequate to meet the demand of the daily rising number of patients is a matter of grave concern.
The oxygen that had been selling for Rs 2,000-3,000 a cylinder earlier, now cost Rs 25,000-40,000 in the black market. While some are willing to shell out any amount to save their dear and near ones, a large section of helpless commoners could only watch it silently from the sidelines.
A solution has not yet been found for the shortage of oxygen in states such as Delhi, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh even after a week. It is yet to be seen how the country will deal with the number of patients increasing on a daily basis in the coming days.