Oxygen shortage has created a deadly hassle in India as the country grapples with B.1.617, a potentially more contagious variant of the Corona virus. Oxygen is crucial in treatment of many patients with severe Covid-19, since the disease affects lung function. Naturally, if a person is unable to get enough air into their lungs, oxygen can’t travel to the other organ systems, which in turn start to fail. Thus, it is considered a prerequisite for severely affected patients.
In March 2020, during the very first nationwide lockdown, the Centre had taken over the power to allocate oxygen to states and UTs based on their demand under terms of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. This was done in order to ensure equal supply based upon medical needs. Therefore, even if a state is capable of producing, storing, and transporting oxygen, it will need ratification from the Centre.
Now, the second wave of the virus has resulted in oxygen potentially turning more precious than jewels. Every other state has urged the Centre to amplify their supply as the needs are high. They had put forth a demand before the Centre to increase their quota of medical oxygen. However, during a hearing in the Supreme Court over Delhi’s oxygen shortage, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, had submitted that if the central government increases the supply of a certain state, it will have to divert it from other states’ quota, which can be unfair.
However, scholars have reported that the shortage isn’t because of production inabilities but because of distribution clichés. Lack of enough transport and storage capacity, cryogenic cylinders/ containers, No centralized coordination for distribution were reported to be the major hurdles.
To address this, the Court suggested that an expert body drawn of renowned national experts with diverse experience in health institutions can be considered for being set up as a National Task Force. This will provide a public health response to the pandemic based on a scientific approach. The Solicitor General informed the Court that the Union Government has responded favourably to the suggestion.
Following this, the Supreme Court on Saturday formed a 12-member task force to ensure systematic and coordinated delivery of Oxygen to every state and UT. It will ensure that the allotment of medical oxygen to the States and UTs is made on a scientific, rational, and equitable basis. A bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud set up the task force.
“It is necessary that an effective and transparent mechanism is set up within the Union government to allocate medical oxygen to all states and UTs for being used during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Union Government has agreed to set up a National Task Force to streamline the process,” a Bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah said in its order on May 6th.
The National Task Force shall consist of the following members:
(i) Dr. Bhabatosh Biswas, Former Vice-Chancellor, West Bengal University of Health Sciences, Kolkata.
(ii) Dr. Devender Singh Rana, Chairperson, Board of Management, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi.
(iii) Dr Devi Prasad Shetty, Chairperson, and Executive Director, Narayana Healthcare, Bengaluru.
(iv) Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu.
(v) Dr. JV Peter, Director, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu.
(vi) Dr. Naresh Trehan, Chairperson and Managing Director, Medanta Hospital and Heart Institute, Gurugram.
(vii) Dr. Rahul Pandit, Director, Critical Care Medicine and ICU, Fortis Hospital, Mulund (Mumbai, Maharashtra) and Kalyan (Maharashtra).
(viii) Dr. Saumitra Rawat, Chairman & Head, Department of Surgical Gastroenterology and Liver Transplant, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi.
(ix) Dr. Shiv Kumar Sarin, Senior Professor and Head of Department of Hepatology, Director, Institute of Liver and Biliary Science (ILBS), Delhi.
(x) Dr Zarir F Udwadia, Consultant Chest Physician, Hinduja Hospital, Breach Candy Hospital, Director-General and Parsee General Hospital, Mumbai.
(xi) Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India (ex officio member).
(xii) The Convener of the National Task Force, who shall also be a member, will be the Cabinet Secretary to the Union government.
The Cabinet Secretary may nominate an officer not below the rank of Additional Secretary to deputize, when necessary.
The Court further said that the Task Force would be at liberty to draw upon the human resources of the Union government for consultation and information, including the following:
(i) A member of NITI Aayog to be nominated by the Vice-Chairperson.
(ii) Secretary, Ministry of Human Affairs.
(iii) Secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade.
(iv) Secretary, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.
(v) Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.
(vi) Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research, New Delhi.
(vii) Director General of Health Services.
(viii) Director-General, National Informatics Centre.
(ix) Head, Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC).
The report also said that the concerned Secretaries would be at liberty to nominate officers of the rank of Additional/Joint Secretary to deputize for them. The Task Force is at liberty to formulate its modalities and procedure for working.
The Task Force may consider it appropriate to co-opt or seek the assistance of other experts within or outside government to facilitate its working, including in the following areas:
(i) Infectious disease modelling
(ii) Critical care
(iii) Clinical virology/Immunology
(iv) Epidemiology/Public health
The amicus curiae appointed by this Court had tendered a list of experts on each of the above subjects.
The order reads that The Task Force is at liberty to formulate its modalities and procedure for working. The Task Force may constitute one or more sub-groups on specialized areas or regions for assisting it, before finalizing its recommendations. The Governments of State and Union Ministries, agencies and departments shall provide complete and real time data for facilitating the work of the Task Force as and when necessary. At the same time, all private hospitals and other health care institutions shall co-operate with the Task Force. It further added that these terms can be modulated subsequently, as per requirements.
The terms of reference of the National Task Force are stated as:
- Assess and make recommendations for the entire country based on the need for, availability and distribution of medical oxygen.
- Formulate and devise the methodology for the allocation of medical oxygen to the States and UTs on a scientific, rational and equitable basis.
- Make recommendations on augmenting the available supplies of oxygen based on present and projected demands likely during the pandemic.
- Make recommendations for the periodical review and revision of allocations based on the stage and impact of the pandemic.
(v) Facilitate audits by sub-groups within each State and UT inter alia for determining:
(a) Whether the supplies allocated by the Union Government reach the concerned State/UT;
(b) The efficacy of the distribution networks in distributing supplies meant for hospitals, health care institutions and others;
(c) Whether the available stocks are being distributed on the basis of an effective, transparent and professional mechanism; and
(d) Accountability regarding the utilization of the supplies of oxygen allocated to each State/UT.
(vi) Review and suggest measures necessary for ensuring the availability of essential drugs and medicines.
(vii) Plan and adopt remedial measures for ensuring preparedness to meet present and future emergencies which may arise during the pandemic.
(viii) Facilitate the use of technology to ensure that the available manpower is optimized for implementing innovative solutions particularly to provide an outreach of expert medical care to rural areas.
(ix) Suggest measures to augment the availability of trained doctors, nurses, and para-medical staff including by the creation of suitable incentives.
(x) Promote evidence-based research to enhance effective responses to the pandemic.
(xi) Facilitate the sharing of best practices across the nation to promote knowledge about the management of the pandemic and treatment of cases.
(xii) Generally, to make recommendations in regard to other issues of pressing national concern to find effective responses to the pandemic.
The purpose is to ensure that the supplies which have been allocated are reaching their destination; that they are being made available through the distribution network to the hospitals efficiently and transparently and to identify bottlenecks in regard to the utilization of oxygen.
The SC requested the Task Force to commence work immediately, taking up the pressing issue of determining the modalities for oxygen expeditiously within 24 weeks. The tenure of the Task Force is decided to be six months initially. And The Central Government is asked to provide all necessary assistance to the Task Force and nominate two Nodal Officers to facilitate its work.
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