Amidst increasing cases of COVID-19 and subsequent hospitalisation, several reports claiming that hospitals are facing shortage of medical Oxygen cylinders have emerged.
Reports from Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra where certain deaths are linked to the shortage in supply of medical Oxygen paint a grave picture.
These reports are being used by multiple users on social media to score political points against the Modi Government and subsequently raise questions on utilisation of the PM CARES Fund. There are some facts that need to be put forth regarding this issue.
Was the PM CARES Fund not used to address adequate supply of medical Oxygen? If so, why does the problem still persist?
PM CARES did provide funds for building a steady supply of medical Oxygen to hospitals. But it is the responsibility of the respective State Government to ensure deployment of funds and last-mile implementation.
In January 2021, Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund Trust has allocated Rs 201.58 crores for installation of additional 162 dedicated Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) Medical Oxygen Generation Plants inside public health facilities in the country.
Government hospitals where these plants are to be installed have been identified in consultation with the States/UTs concerned; the Centre on its part has ensured a maintenance clause in the contract as well. Beyond that, it is the responsibility of states and UTs to see the project completion.
Does the Centre have an ultimate grip on medical Oxygen supply?
No, The Centre formulates overall policy and makes necessary interventions.
The states take care of the supply of medical Oxygen by entering into agreements with private parties. For example, Inox Air Products and Linde India, which together produce 800 metric ton liquid oxygen every day, are the two main suppliers of Maharashtra.
The states, from time to time, have been claiming that they are planning new medical Oxygen plants. A report from The Indian Express dated September 13, 2020 mentioned that district collectors were working to set up their own oxygen plants in Osmanabad, Beed, Nandurbar and Pimpri Chinchwad. The report also mentioned that 14 districts had already installed an oxygen plant, 16 others are in process of setting up.
Similarly, August 2020, Karnataka government was planning to strengthen medical Oxygen supply system. Back in October 2020, the State Health Minister of Chhattisgarh had mentioned that State Government will set up oxygen generation plants in all medical colleges and 17 district hospitals in next four weeks.
One may wonder why certain handles continue to pretend that it is the sole responsibility of the Prime Minister and PM CARES Fund to set right the Oxygen supply system?
How is the Centre responding to the present crisis in medical Oxygen supply?
The Centre sees it more as a management issue rather than a shortage in the supply of medical Oxygen. This is mainly because in such unprecedented times, medical Oxygen meant for industrial use can be diverted. The Union Health Ministry has said that there is sufficient production capacity of around 7,127 MTs for oxygen in the country, and as per requirements, surplus oxygen available with the steel plants is also being utilised.
While ensuring that detailed mapping of sources for medical Oxygen supply for affected states is already underway, it asked the States to make judicious use of medical Oxygen.
It should be recalled that even during the first phase of COVID-19 surge, the Centre had made necessary intervention when hospitals faced similar shortage and facilitated the hassle-free supply of medical Oxygen. Even then, it was clarified that it is the responsibility of States and UTs to ensure that every hospitalised COVID-19 patient receives necessary Oxygen supply.