Oxygen supply: SC stays Delhi HC order on contempt proceedings against Centre's officials

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday stayed contempt proceedings initiated by Delhi High Court against central government officials for non-compliance of direction to supply 700 MT of oxygen for COVID patients here, saying putting officers in jail would not bring oxygen and efforts should be made to save lives.

The apex court conducted urgent hearing on the Centre's plea against the high court show-cause notice on contempt and an order seeking personal appearance of its two senior officials for failing to comply with the directions to ensure supply of 700 liquid medical oxygen (LMO) to Delhi.

While granting the stay on contempt against the officials, a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah made clear that it was not stopping the high court from monitoring COVID-19 management related issues.

It also directed a meeting, even virtually, between officials of the Centre and Delhi government by this evening to discuss various aspects of augmenting the oxygen supply to the national capital.

Terming the ongoing second wave of COVID-19 pandemic as an all-India phenomenon, the bench said, Putting officers in jail is not going to bring oxygen to the city, let us ensure lives are saved.

Ultimately putting officers in jail and hauling them up for contempt will not help. There should be a spirit of cooperation and the lives of people are at stake... Nobody can dispute that this is not a national pandemic, that people are not dying, that the Central Government is not doing anything....

During the over two-hour-long hearing via video conferencing, the top court also asked the Centre, represented by Solicitor General Tuhar Mehta and Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, to place before it a plan - in chart form - indicating the manner in which it would comply with the order asking it to supply 700 MT LMO to Delhi.

Seeking the report by Thursday 10.30 AM, the bench said it should also indicate the sources of supply of LMO, provision for transportation and logistical arrangements necessary.

The top court seemed to be in disagreement with a report on oxygen demands of states prepared by an expert committee, to which AIIMS Director Randeep Guleria is also a member, which said Delhi needed 515 MT of LMO.

It said that the committee had taken note of oxygen demands linked to ICU and oxygen beds of hospitals only and did not consider the aspect such as individuals, who are not hospitalized, also need oxygen.

The pandemic in Delhi is very critical. Our order was of May 2. We are on May 5. What you need to do is tell us how much you have allocated over the past few days, the bench said.

This needs to be evaluated on a real-time basis. There is tremendous pressure on citizens to get cylinders and oxygen. If you can showcase the time of arrival, the amount of oxygen, please put it upfront and publicise. So that citizens know, the bench observed.

The government officials, Piyush Goyal and Sumita Dawra who were summoned by the high court, were comforted by the top court before being asked questions on roadblocks in supply of 700 MT LMO to Delhi.

First and foremost, have a peace of mind. I know you are all working beyond the call of duty and the aim is not to haul up the officers for contempt and contempt doesn't help, until or unless it is absolutely wilful, the bench said.

Goyal, additional secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, then explained the situation and answered queries and said shortage of containers is the key problem and production of oxygen is not a problem.

This is an all-India pandemic situation and we will have to find ways to ensure oxygen supply to the national capital as we are answerable to people of Delhi, it said.

We are also in Delhi. We are helpless and have been on the phone. We can imagine what citizens are going through, Justice Chandrachud said, adding that his office is hearing cries from people including lawyers seeking help.

The top court said it cannot review its order of April 30 and the Centre will have to inch towards supply of 700 MT of oxygen daily for Delhi and asked the Union government to place before it a plan by Thursday morning as to how it will revamp the supply to 700MT.

It suggested that a committee of experts and doctors including those from the private sector may be constituted to ascertain the situation in Delhi and take into account the COVID-19 situation which had been prevailing in Mumbai.

This is not adversarial litigation. Centre, Delhi governments are elected and doing their best to serve COVID-19 patients, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said.

"Tell us how much oxygen you have allocated to Delhi in the last three days," the bench asked at the outset.

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