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View from India: Nation pulls together in face of Covid oxygen crisis

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The second wave of Covid is killing thousands and thousands of people every day in all states. The sum total of Covid cases was close to twenty million yesterday. As the national government released emergency funding to the states and called on the armed forces to assist, India’s major manufacturers are diverting their efforts to the supply of medical oxygen.

To help curb the pandemic’s upward trend, the Union Finance Ministry has released the first instalment of the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for 2021-22 to all States. Usually the first instalment of SDRF is released in June. But the unprecedented pace at which the pandemic is spreading, and claiming lives, has changed the procedure.

A sum of over Rs 8,873.6 crore (around £90m) has been released to all states over the weekend. Over half the amount will go towards Covid-19 containment measures. This will take into account the cost of oxygen generation and storage plants in hospitals, ventilators and air purifiers. The money will also be utilised to strengthen ambulance services, Covid-19 hospitals, Covid Care Centres, consumables, thermal scanners, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing laboratories, testing kits and containment zones.

The Covid crisis has led the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to grant emergency financial powers to the armed forces. Commanders of all three forces have been delegated power to operate hospitals and quarantine facilities and undertake the procurement of equipment. Delegated over the weekend, the emergency powers are operational from May 1 to July 31.  

To meet the pressing needs for oxygen, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has handed over 75 cylinders to the Department of Health and Family Welfare, Government of NCR (National Capital Region) of Delhi. The organisation will set up 500 oxygen plants under the PM Cares Fund, whose full form is Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund.

DRDO is responsible for the development of technology for use by the Indian military. Researched over years, its R&D unit has arrived at the Medical Oxygen Plant (MOP) technology. This is used for On-Board Oxygen Generation in Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, which is a fighter jet. Interestingly, DRDO will leverage the MOP technology in the oxygen plants. The value-add is that on-site medical oxygen can be generated by hospitals rather than relying on outside sources.

DRDO has transferred the MOP technology to Tata Advanced Systems Limited, Bangalore, and Trident Pneumatics Pvt. Ltd, Coimbatore, which will be producing 380 plants for installation across various hospitals in the country. Another 120 plants of 500 LPM (litres per minute) capacity will be produced by industries working with Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun, which works under Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The demand for medical oxygen is spiralling, and patients battle for their lives due to its shortage. India’s steel plants have come forward to meet the growing demands of liquid medical oxygen (LMO) required for Covid patients. Ratan Tata of the Tata Group is supplying medical grade oxygen from Tata Steel. Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries is using his Jamnagar plant for oxygen supply. Naveen Jindal of Jindal Steel and Power has ramped up the oxygen production. JSW Steel from Bellary is supplying medical oxygen in Karnataka. One of India’s largest steel-making companies, Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), is supplying oxygen from its plants in Bokaro, Bhilai, Burnpur, Durgapur and Rourkela.

To put things in perspective, gaseous oxygen is one of the components used in the production of industrial steel. Customarily, large integrated steel plants are equipped with oxygen plants as well. For this reason, steelmakers in the country are working in full swing to supply LMO to the various states. After removing the impurities, the oxygen is being diverted for medical purpose.

Automotive manufacturing group chairman Anand Mahindra has announced an initiative to help deliver oxygen to different parts of the country. Launched over the weekend, the initiative titled Oxygen on Wheels has begun in Maharashtra, one of the worst affected states, before it is scaled nationally. Bolero pickup trucks are being used to deliver oxygen cylinders. Logistics hurdles are being tackled as last-mile patients are brought into the fold. “Oxygen on Wheels” uses trucks in local shuttle routes to connect oxygen producers with hospitals/homes. An operations control centre has been established. The storage location is replenished from the local refilling plant. A direct-to-consumer model is being conceived,” tweeted Anand Mahindra.

In April, the Ministry of Railways embarked on the mission of transporting LMO and oxygen cylinders. Titled Oxygen Express, the journey is far from the regular one, as there are technical issues to be addressed. As per media reports, the railways had to work out technical feasibilities of transportation. LMO has to be transported through Roll on Roll Off (RO-RO) service with road tankers placed on flat wagons. Other issues had to be solved.

There have been restrictions of the height of road overbridges and overhead equipment at certain locations. So, the model of road tanker T 1618 with height of 3.32m was found feasible to be placed on flat wagons or (DBKM i.e. Defense, Bogie Military wagon) with height of 1.29m.

With these safety-technical parameters in place, the Oxygen Express has offloaded several tonnes of the life saving medical gas to Delhi and the states of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Telangana, among other regions. Green corridors have been chalked out to enable the fast movement of the Oxygen Express.  

Delhivery a delivery start-up has come forward to charter flights to airlift oxygen concentrators. SpiceXpress the cargo unit of SpiceJet, a domestic airline has come forward to airlift oxygen concentrators from Hong Kong and distribute it in India.

Over the weekend, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi has taken out oxygen cylinders from its labs and handed it over to the Delhi government to be deployed in the hospitals.

The oxygen deficit ironically has pushed the boundary of tech solutions. The outcome is that IIT Bombay has arrived at a technology whereby nitrogen generators can be converted into oxygen generators. The idea was triggered off from the fact that several industrial plants are home to nitrogen plants. A PSA nitrogen plant in the Refrigeration and Cryogenics Laboratory of IIT-B has been identified to take the idea ahead. IIT-B has signed a memorandum of understanding with Tata Consulting Engineers Limited (TCE) and Spantech Engineers for a nationwide reach of the project.

Social media and citizen volunteering platforms have aired out SOS messages conveying the dire need to meet the national medical emergency. The message is hard-hitting, conjuring up images of patients gasping for a breath of life. Platforms have sprung up for matching plasma donors. Individuals are working in personal capacity to do whatever best they can. For instance, a group of Sikh volunteers have put up makeshift tents outside a temple in Delhi. Patients who are in need are given oxygen in these tents. 

Hundreds of start-ups-investors have organised fundraiser programmes to mobilise funds for oxygen concentrators. Initiated by venture funds and private equity (PE) firms, ACT Grants has shared its concern on Twitter. “ACT is a collective movement by India’s start-up ecosystem & leaders. We are now accepting domestic & international donations at actgrants.in/donate/. These will go towards oxygen solutions, home healthcare & more. Join us in this fight. ACT now!,” tweeted ACT, in its appeal to people.

Internationally, Unicef has pitched in by sending oxygen concentrators, diagnostic tests, medical kits and other critical life-saving requirements. Support in the form of medical supplies and oxygen concentrators have poured in from various countries like UK, Italy and Singapore, among others.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai took to Twitter and said, “Devastated to see the worsening Covid crisis in India. Google & Googlers are providing Rs 135 Crore in funding to @GiveIndia, @UNICEF for medical supplies, orgs supporting high-risk communities, and grants to help spread critical information.” Apple CEO Tim Cook shared his feelings and tweeted, “Amid a devastating rise of COVID cases in India, our thoughts are with the medical workers, our Apple family and everyone there who is fighting through this awful stage of the pandemic. Apple will be donating to support and relief efforts on the ground.”

The Indian government, along with industrialists, start-ups and volunteers has come forward to save lives. Be it producing medical oxygen or organising its supply to hospitals, they are doing their bit. Logistics-supply chain firms are trying their best to supply essentials to families affected by Covid and are under quarantine.

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