The second wave in India has posed a challenging threat to the country and crippled the healthcare systems. With a constant shortage of hospital beds, ventilators, medicines, and injections, the cases are constantly surging resulting in an increased number of deaths due to the lack of facilities. A major problem in this healthcare crisis is the lack of medical oxygen, and the entire nation is struggling to procure the resource.
“For the last two days, I have been getting more space to sleep here. My entire stock is rented or sold. I am hardly getting oxygen supply, and the phone doesn’t stop ringing. There is always someone crying for oxygen on the other side,” says Afzal Shaikh who is an oxygen dealer in Jogeshwari, Mumbai.
But what has led to this heart-wrenching crisis that India that the citizens are gasping for breath. Here is an overview.
1. To begin with, we must understand what happens in an Oxygen production plant. These plants produce liquid oxygen, which is highly purified (99.5%) and is in liquid form. This liquid oxygen is cryogenic i.e. extremely cold gas and is a bit blue in color. Thus, it can only be transported in special tankers and cylinders.
2. Thus, the problem might not be with the production and essentially the transportation. The latest data by the Government of India claims that around 7,500 metric tonne Oxygen is produced in India on daily basis. The medical use terms ask for an oxygen supply of around 6,000 MT Oxygen. The Narendra Modi government further claims that it has already diverted nearly 90% of the total production – 6,600 MT to be exact – for medical use. Thus, these numbers can paint a picture that India has enough production of oxygen.
3. The important question that arises here is that how are we still facing shortages despite such mass production. The problem then prevails in the transportation network. According to Indian Express sources, liquid oxygen produced across the 500 Oxygen functional plants right now is transported to the distributers in special tankers. These tanker drivers refrain from night travel due to the risk of accidents and the fact that they cannot drive beyond the speed limit of 40 kmph.
4. The tanker after reaching the distributors from the production site is regasified to convert liquid Oxygen into gaseous form. It is then filled into cylinders for utilization in hospitals and medical institutions.
5. The problem here is that India lacks the availability of tankers to transport this gas from the production center. Thus, even though the quantity of oxygen produced at these sites is enough, the unavailability of these special tankers makes it difficult for the oxygen cylinders to be refilled. Further, there is an imbalance in the oxygen distribution across states. While states like Kerala, Odisha, and Jharkhand have enough supply, transporting this oxygen to Maharashtra and Delhi is a tedious task.
6. Thus, these difficulties have led to the center transporting oxygen via trains which is a more economical and speedy option. NDTV reported, “On April 18, the Railways had announced it will run ''Oxygen Express'' trains over the next few days to transport liquid medical oxygen and oxygen cylinders across the country.” The Maharashtra health minister recommended using the Indian Air Force planes to transport the empty cylinders.
7. Furthermore there is a lack of any concrete plan of action to deal with the second wave. The Indian government was also alerted by important government panels about these possible shortages twice last year.
The Indian Express reported, “The first was just a week after the national lockdown began, on April 1, 2020, by one of the 11 Empowered Groups of Officers, set up by the Centre for planning and implementing an effective Covid response.”
“This was the Empowered Group-VI (EG-VI) tasked to coordinate with the “Private Sector, NGOs & International Organizations for response-related activities.” In its second meeting, held on April 1 last year, it red-flagged oxygen shortage”, it added.
The minutes of the meeting said: “In the coming days India could face a shortage of oxygen supplies. To address this, CII will coordinate with Indian Gas Association and mitigate the lack of oxygen supply.”
However, no action was taken.
8. The panel also talked about scaling up oxygen stock because of how the oxygen production in the country was largely utilized for industrial purposes. Despite all these warnings, the Central government did not pay attention to the situation, and finally, after the second wave crisis aggravated, the government issued orders to stop the use of oxygen for industrial purposes on April 22nd, 2021.
9. Further, to meet the rising demand it plans to import 50,000 MT of oxygen, with Russia also offering this resource. It also aims to install Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) plants to help the hospitals. Thus, currently, the nation faces an acute shortage of oxygen due to less production and lack of viable transportation means.