The Supreme Court on Thursday said the central government’s policy on the supply of medical-grade oxygen to states needed a “complete revamp” even as it lamented that the government’s expert committee had overlooked the “most obvious points” related to the supply of the life-saving gas.
Observing that it was inclined to set up a panel for reviewing the Centre’s policy, the bench of justices Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah found fault with the Centre’s formula to link allocation of oxygen to only the number of beds in the hospitals of a state and active cases.
“Your formula requires a complete revamp. Now, we tell you the practical problem is that when you prepared this formula, not everyone required oxygen or bed, but many patients today require oxygen even at home. Your formula takes into account the number of beds in hospitals but not those who will require it at home because there are not enough beds available anywhere,” it told solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who represented the Union government.
The court added that the government’s formula, which computed the total requirement of a state on the basis that 50% of the non-ICU beds required 10 litres of oxygen per minute while ICU beds required 24 litres per minute, also failed to take note of oxygen requirements for ambulances and covid-care facilities, besides logistical issues related to transportation and turnaround time.
“If we look at Delhi, your formula is a gross underestimation of what is actually required for Delhi. This formula has to be looked at from the national perspective. We don’t want these proceedings to be Delhi-centric, but this formula requires a revamp. Your committee didn’t look at most obvious points which we as judges can see,” it said.
On his part, the solicitor general produced a chart in the court to show that the Centre had complied with the court order, and Delhi received 730 tonnes of oxygen on 6 May. He added that a survey of 56 big hospitals in the city on Wednesday showed all of them had sufficient stock available with them and that the large quantities of oxygen that reached on Wednesday were yet to be distributed.
Refuting the Delhi government’s claim of a daily requirement of 700 tonnes, Mehta said the allotment made to other states was interfered with to comply with the court order of supplying 700 tonnes of oxygen to Delhi every day. “It is, therefore, clarified that any deficiency in other states resulting from the diversion of their allotted quota to GNCTD (Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi) may result in adverse consequences beyond the control of the Centre,” he maintained.
The solicitor general pressed for an ‘oxygen audit’ in Delhi, stating there was a systemic failure in efficiently handing oxygen in the national capital and that a committee of experts could be set up to examine the loopholes and deficiencies.
Senior advocate Rahul Mehra, appearing for the Delhi government, called it a witch-hunt and resisted any order of audit, claiming it would divert resources and officials from the management of the pandemic. Mehra contended that if at all any audit was required, the top court must order an audit of the Centre’s arbitrary oxygen allocation policy.
The court observed that a committee will have to be formed “to provide a national pool of resources and guidance on the management of the pandemic”. The panel could look into areas such as allocation of oxygen, logistical requirements, and a pan-India audit of distribution of resources, given the fact that a major part of the country was rural and an equitable distribution must take place.
At this, the solicitor general said that the policy was continuously evolving in the wake of the dynamic nature of the pandemic.
“I must also tell this court that this issue is being examined at the highest possible level in the government. I assure this court that we would revisit that formula,” he said.
The bench, however, responded: “We need to assess the basis of oxygen allocation. We are in stage two of the pandemic, and we may be getting to stage three. We need to prepare to handle stage three.”
It further underscored the necessity of creating a buffer stock of oxygen in all high-load cities. “Hospitals are sending SOS that we are left with two hours of oxygen; three hours of oxygen. This has created panic in the mind of the people. In Delhi’s Batra hospital, a senior doctor lost his life. That’s the kind of situation we need to alleviate,” it added.
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