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It was ‘India in Action’ during O2 crisis: Oxygen empowered group convener | India News

After fighting a tough battle of second wave when demand for medical oxygen increased exponentially, the country is getting ready to face any such challenge in future by increasing capacity to accelerate production and transportation of medical oxygen. Convener of Empowered Group on Oxygen & road transport and highway secretary Giridhar Aramane spoke to TOI about the plans.
While the Covid caseload has decreased in urban areas, there are concerns relating to rural areas and we need to be prepared for the future. What is the government’s plan?
Medical oxygen supply has been a very sensitive issue. The government has given a lot of thought while deciding how to ensure that all patients receive all medical supplies including oxygen. That’s why an empowered group was constituted and the government gave all the powers to procure oxygen without any delay. So, the first task was to increase the supply.
Fundamental economic law says when supply increases, automatically the clamour for hoarding will come down. The government concentrated on ensuring availability of adequate quantity and several measures were taken. The first was, operating all the liquid oxygen plants to their full capacity. Second was increasing the capacity by technical improvement; like some manufacturers made some short term improvement to the technology and brought about 5-10% increase in production. One or two plants were commissioned in the last one year.
Capacity of Reliance Industries went up from 300 to 1,000 tonnes a day. The other important thing was operating all these plants at their maximum capacity. They were producing 25-30% above their actual capacity. Third important measure was that the government realised that some areas don’t have any oxygen plants. So, under the PM Cares fund, 162 PSA plants were sanctioned.
By now we have installed 102 of them and the remaining will be installed and commissioned in the next one month. Another 1,051 PSA plants under the PM Cares fund have been approved. So, every district will get at least one and some will get more than one.
This entire system will create capacity for generating another 2,500 tonnes of medical oxygen. Some top companies are manufacturing these plants. Our total capacity after installation of these plants will go up to around 12,500 tonnes per day, which was barely around 6,000 tonnes last year.
What is the plan for meeting demands in rural areas?
Rural areas also need medical oxygen and we have to supply this in a different manner. We can’t put such PSA plants in 50 bedded or 30 bedded health centres. There, we will have to supply through cylinders. Last year the government procured around 7 lakh cylinders and distributed them throughout the country. The total cylinder available has gone up from 4.5 lakhs to 11 lakhs in the last one year. Another 1.27 lakh are being distributed to states and orders have been placed for 1.5 lakh more cylinders. Apart from cylinders the government is also procuring oxygen concentrators for mild and moderate patients under PM Cares funds. This will be useful in smaller locations.
There are some inputs that private hospitals are not keen to put PSA plants for certain interests. How is the government dealing with this?
My information is that even private hospitals are very interested in having these plants because they have realized that in a crisis having some in-house capacity will help, if not for 500 beds. Big hospitals may have at least these plants to cater to ICU requirements that will ensure that they have emergency supply. So, in a way that will ensure an increase in availability and the requirement for transportation and logistics will also reduce. What the government has done is it has created a supply system for PSA plants also. So, we have enabled large scale manufacturers in the country who will be able to supply a large number of PSA plants in short terms. The private hospitals can also buy them at lower cost and get better quality. We have also tied up the maintenance and the companies will maintain them.
So, will this be some kind of permanent solution? Will this help us prepare for any future crisis?
This will be a permanent solution. Once all these PSA plants are installed, there will be no such big problem with medical oxygen demand.
How did you manage the crisis when every state was demanding more medical oxygen and amid several accusations?
In a crisis, India reacts as one. The Prime Minister had meetings with the CMs and all officers; the cabinet secretary held review meetings with chief secretaries of states. One night I called up Maharashtra chief secretary to send a tanker to Goa and he willingly sent it. Similarly, Karntaka themselves were in a serious state at one time, but when we requested them to spare tankers to Maharashtra and Telnagana, they happily did so. When we requested Kerala chief secretary to share some oxygen to Tamil Nadu, even when they were not getting their full quota, the state government gave some from its quota to Tamil Nadu. It was Indian in action and there was no Centre-state issue.
How was the response of states like Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand since most of the medical oxygen was coming from these states?
They were extremely supportive. Ultimately, everyone realizes that either we survive as a nation or we will all perish together – swim or sink together. All the states know about it.
Was it a 24X7 operation for the empowered group during the crisis?
Yes we were alert 24X7. In a day, there were 2,000-3,000 messages. There were more messages and alerts from Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa. We kept on receiving messages throughout the night. The entire logistics chain was throwing up issues – from behavior of plant manager to police stopping tankers, no availability of driver for another tanker, delay on parts of some states in sending back containers and need for arranging aircrafts to lift empty tankers. All members of the main group and sub-groups were available throughout. Home secretary and cabinet secretary were the last one to go to bed. I don’t think they even slept from April 21 to April 30. We were getting calls and messages from them at 12.30 am, 1.30am and even at 2.30 am.
Had you ever dealt with such a crisis in your career?
A: The scale of this crisis is much bigger. In 1989, I dealt with a major cyclone that hit a coastal district in Andhra Pradesh. I was very young and was posted as Tehsildar there. We had to undertake relief and rehabilitation work for 15 days. I did not sleep for 15 days. That time there was no mobile.

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