With 66,191 new cases reported on Sunday, April 25, Maharashtra now has become the state with the highest number of COVID-19 patients in India. The state has seen 832 deaths on Sunday, which is the highest single day number till the date. Around 8,000 patients are critical across the state, either on ventilator or in ICU.
In such a scenario, the demand for medical oxygen has also increased exponentially. The state is currently consuming 1,600 million tonnes of oxygen on a daily basis. As per the estimates of the COVID-19 task force, the demand can go up to 2,000 MT per day in the first week of May. Following this, the number of infections reported is expected to start declining, according to official estimates.
Meanwhile, as the demand for oxygen is on the rise, the friends and relatives of patients have been forced to run from pillar to post in search of it. However, this has exposed the reality that the entire government mechanism failed to anticipate and prepare for an eventuality where the oxygen demand would increase to this extent.
At present, there are eight oxygen plants in Maharashtra – Roha and Panvel (Raigad), Ranjangaon and Chakan (Pune), Turbhe and Taloja (Thane), Murbad (Palghar) and Aurangabad. In the last 20 days, two minor plants have been raised in Thane and Nasik cities. These plants are supplying 1,250 MT oxygen. The rest 450 MT are coming from other states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Andhra.
What has shockingly come to the fore is that in the last one year since the pandemic hit the country, the state government failed to raise even a single major oxygen plant. Not only that, the state government reportedly also refused permission to raise small plants which could be built in the campus of government hospitals.
Notably, the state was one of the worst hit regions by the pandemic during the first wave as well.
A senior minister in the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government, who wished to remain anonymous, told NewsClick that bureaucratic delay in clearance of permission for oxygen plant has led to this situation. "There are models of smaller oxygen plants. It could generate oxygen for 50 to 70 patients. Many of my colleagues have been asking the Health Ministry to initiate these proposals. But nothing on this line has happened," said this senior minister.
Also read: COVID-19: Politics over Acute Shortage of Oxygen and Remdesivir in Maharashtra
The same minister had reportedly lashed out at the principal secretary of the Health Department during the meeting for oxygen provision. He had told the secretary that, "The Health Department should have already worked on building plants. If you don't have time to do it then give rights to District Planning Department Committee (DPDCs). They will take decision in their authority."
Further, the scarcity of oxygen had been discussed in the legislative council in September 2020. During the discussion on COVID-19, the demand to raise at least 15 plants across the state was also raised. However, no concrete measures were reportedly taken up to meet the demand.
On April 25, the state vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party and MLC Prasad Lad levelled serious allegations against the state government, claiming that the central government had allotted funds to the state for building oxygen plants. "The honourable Prime Minister had given Rs 200 crore to build 10 plants. But nothing has happened. I would like to ask the state government, where is this money gone? Why no (oxygen) plants have come up in the state?," he had questioned.
However, it became clear later that the Centre never transferred the money to the state government. Instead, it had asked Central Medical Services Society (CMSS) within the Union Health Ministry to build these plants. But out of 10, installation of only two plants – at Hingoli and Buldana – were scheduled to begin on Saturday, April 24.
Also read: COVID-19: The Elusive Remdesivir and a Catastrophe in Maharashtra
The above evidences clearly point towards the failure of both central and state governments to prepare for the worst case scenario. The ruling parties at the Centre and state have been engaged in a blame game while people are being left gasping.
Another point that has led to the rise of questions is the decision to bring oxygen by train. Maharashtra received oxygen by train from Vishakhapatnam. However, the time taken for transportation has come under serious scrutiny. Shardul Manurkar, policy adviser to the Maharashtra government, said, “The Oxygen Express carrying seven oxygen tankers began its journey from Mumbai to Vizag on the morning of April 19. The train returned on the morning of April 24. So turn around time is almost 120 hours. According to the Central Railway’s press release, the train avoided the normal route (and took a longer route) as it was not possible to pass through tunnels with tankers mounted on it.”
He added, “The distance between Mumbai and Vizag is 1344 km via National Highway 65 as per Google map. By road, a tanker with an average speed of 50-60 kmph would have reached Vizag in 22-26 hours. After filling the oxygen it could have returned in the same time frame. So by road, turn around time would be approx 60 hours maximum to Mumbai. So, wouldn't it be a wise and faster option to create a green corridor by road? What was the logic? Or was it just another PR exercise in this pandemic time?”