Oxygen Supply in India: 9 hours, 5 hours, 2 hours, 1 hour… breathless and battered, hospitals across India are sending out Oxygen SOS as the nation crumbles under the worst health emergency it has ever seen. The second most populous country in the world is fighting against the invisible enemy to keep its lakhs of sons and daughters alive. So why is India facing this acute Oxygen shortage? Well, the answer lies in the disastrous management of the coronavirus pandemic and not learning any lesson from the first wave of the viral infections that the country witnessed last year. A look at the social media in India shows how desperate the situation is. There is a deluge of ‘help me’ messages from troubled relatives and family members looking for Oxygen cylinders, Oxygen beds, Covid medicines etc. So how ‘we beat the coronavirus’ phase, India arrived at ‘worst outbreak epicentre’ phase? Here’s the lowdown on India’s Oxygen emergency:
1: First thing first – what happens at an Oxygen production plan? The simple answer is that the liquid oxygen, which is produced at these plants, is highly purified (99.5%) and is always in liquid form. Bit blue in colour, the liquid oxygen is cryogenic i.e. extremely cold gas. It can only be transported in special tankers and cylinders.
2: Now, the problem is essentially with transportation and not production. According to the latest data shared by the Government of India, around 7,500 metric tonne Oxygen is produced in India on daily basis. In term of medical use, India requires somewhere around 6,000 MT Oxygen. The Narendra Modi government has said that it has already diverted nearly 90% of the total production – 6,600 MT to be exact – for medical use. So, if you look at the numbers, India already has enough production that can meet the demand of medical Oxygen in the country.
3: So, if we are producing enough Oxygen, why are Indian hospitals gasping for breath? The problem lies in the transportation system prevalent. There are roughly 500 Oxygen plants functioning in India right now. The liquid Oxygen produced at these plants is cryogenic and is transported to the distributers in special tankers, an Indian Express report says.
4: Now, drivers of these tankers usually don’t travel at night due to the high chance of accidents. Plus speed is also a factor. Such tankers can’t be driven at a speed of more than 40 kmph. After the tanker reaches the distributors, the people there follow the regasification procedure to convert the liquid Oxygen into gaseous form. It is then filled in cylinders, which we usually see in hospitals and other medical institutions.
5: As the Indian Express report says, India doesn’t have enough tankers that can transport the stock of this cryogenic gas within a short time. So, while the plants are producing enough Oxygen, there is no way that India can ramp us the number of special tankers. And since there is a shortage of tankers, the cylinders lying with the distributors and hospitals are not getting refilled. There is also the case of the location of these plants. States such as Kerala, Odisha and Jharkhand have enough stock of Oxygen. But transporting it to Maharashtra and Delhi is a nightmare.
6: Due to these difficulties, the Centre is transporting the Oxygen via trains, which is a cheaper and faster option. Another option, about which the Maharashtra health minister said today was, deploying the Indian Air Force planes to transport the empty cylinders.
7: Another deplorable factor about the current crisis is that there was no action plan in place, that could have been used. Another Indian Express report says that two important government panels had raised alarm back in April and November last year. However, no action was taken.
8: In fact, the report says that last year, a key government committee had raised an alarm over how the bulk of Oxygen produced in the country was being used only for industrial purpose. The panel had said that India needs to scale up the Oxygen stock. Despite such early warnings, this year, when the second wave resulted in a massive uptick in cases, the Centre stopped the use of Oxygen for industrial purpose with an order that came into force on April 22nd this year.
9: Now, the government is scrambling for not only transportation but production of Oxygen also.
10: The government is now planning to import 50,000 MT of Oxygen with Russia also offering to supply the life-saving resource. There are plans of installing Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) plants to help the hospitals.