Coronavirus Pandemic

Covid in India: How Kerala escaped an oxygen crisis Filed on April 23, 2021
A man waits to refill a medical oxygen cylinder at a charging station on the outskirts of Prayagraj. — AP

The state is producing surplus oxygen when rest of India is gasping for breath

The second wave has turned India into a Covid hell with 16 million confirmed cases and daily infections soaring to over 300,000 for a second day.

Healthcare systems have collapsed in many states under the staggering number of patients wanting medical care. Reports from across the country show how bodies are waiting for burial in hospitals even as more people are dying due to the lack of oxygen.

Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said the country is producing 7,500 metric tonnes of oxygen per day of which 6,600 metric tonnes is being allocated to the states for medical purposes.

But the demand is fast outstripping the supply. Many hospitals are running out of Oxygen causing panic among people and medical workers, who are grappling with a surge in cases.

Max Healthcare, a private hospital in India’s capital, Delhi sent out a tweet saying it has only enough Oxygen for an hour.

>>> ALSO READ: Pandemic to peak in India by mid-May, says scientists

Delhi hospitals issue SOS alerts over oxygen supplies

A video message by Saurabh Bharadwaj, a legislature member from Aam Aadmi Party, saying he has only three hours of Oxygen left, went viral.

Sates like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana are all facing severe Oxygen shortage leaving thousands gasping for breath. Social media platforms are flooding with SOS messages from families requesting for Oxygen cylinders as they helplessly watch their loved ones die.

The situation has gone out of control that the Supreme Court has stepped in and has asked the central government to immediately address the issue.

How Kerala became India's only Oxygen surplus state

While the nation is grappling with an Oxygen crisis, Kerala — a tiny state in the Southern tip of India — is producing surplus medical Oxygen and is even supplying to neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu, Goa and Karnataka.

How did the state manage it? R Venugopal, deputy chief controller of explosives, Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), nodal officer (medical oxygen monitoring) for Kerala & Lakshwadeep, says meticulous planning and ensuring optimal supply well in advance helped the state avoid an Oxygen crisis.

“Kerala is the only state which currently has surplus oxygen. One reason for this could be that the state was able to estimate the oxygen requirement of each patient and ensure optimal supply whereas this process has been not very so rigorous in other states,” Venugopal told Khaleej Times over phone from India.

The state produces 199 metric tonnes of Oxygen per day. The demand for Covid care in the state is currently 35MTPD. The non-covid care requires 45MTPD. Venugopal says Kerala can further ramp up production and meet any emergency situation.

“Our current total production capacity is 204 MTPD. The major Oxygen producers in the state are Inox with 149 MT, Kerala Minerals and Metals with 6 MTPD, Cochin Shipyard with 5.45 MTPD and Bharat Petroleum Corporation with 0.322 MTPD.”

“Currently, all filling plants are not running at 100 per cent capacity. if demand is there, we can go for 100 per cent capacity.”

For instance, Venugopal said though Inox has a capacity of 149 tonnes per day, they are only producing is 147 tonnes and is supplying liquid oxygen to hospitals in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

“In addition, there are 11 ASU plants in Kerala for filling cylinders and they will function 100 per cent. One ASU plant will be commissioned at Palakkad district and will be operational within a month with a production capacity of 4MT per day,” he added.

Other Oxygen producers also rose up to the situation and ensured that enough medical oxygen is supplied.

Chandrabose J, managing director of KMML, another Oxygen producer, said the company can produce 70 tonnes of Oxygen per day. Out of this, only 10 per cent is medical oxygen.

“We have supplied 900 tonnes of medical oxygen in the last six months. “Since October, we have been producing 150 tonnes/month. We have the capacity to produce 210 tonnes per month of medical oxygen if there is a surge in demand,” Chandrabose told Khaleej Times.

Madhu S Nair, chairman and managing director of Cochin Shipyard that supplies 200 cylinders for the Covid needs, says they can ramp up production up to 600 cylinders if the situation warrants.

“The only constrain we have is that we do not have cylinders because our core business is ship building and maintenance. Oxygen in large quantities need to be produced in liquid form. Industries like ours are generating gas. So, medical companies dealing with liquid oxygen need to bring the cylinder and fill it. What I understand is there is no shortage of cylinder either in the state,” Nair said in a telephonic interview with Khaleej Times.

Cochin Shipyard, he said, has also helped set up Centralised Oxygen Distribution Facilities at five government hospitals in Kerala as part of their CSR initiatives. "We did not foresee the current scenario. But we are committed to supporting the cause and are glad that this has come handy during an emergency.”

Role of PESO

PESO is a department under the Government of India that is responsible for monitoring and ensuring ample supply and storage of life-saving medical oxygen in the country. It also evaluates transport capacity, bulk tank availability, distances, road conditions and security.

The Chief Controller of Explosives has appointed nodal officers for the monitoring of oxygen in each state.

Elaborating on the role played by PESO, Venugopal said the state governments appoint nodal officers from the state health department and verify the need from each district and gave data to the PESO nodal officers.

“The PESO nodal officer, who is the regulator of compressed gas plants under explosives act and gas cylinder rules, collect data from oxygen manufacturers and fillers and ensured that oxygen reaches the hospitals. This is team work by central and state governments for a great cause.”

He said a central control room has been set up by PESO at Faridabad, Nagpur, and state control rooms at all states to monitor the oxygen manufacturing, storage and movement of medical oxygen across country.

“Kerala took the advice of PESO to augment the capacity of ASU plants in Kerala by ensuring better maintenance, coordination and 24/7 working.

“Hospitals were advised to ensure their systems are maintained properly without any leakage. Cylinder supply was also increased to cover every nook and corner of the state,” said the official.

Venugopal said other states can take a leaf out of the Kerala example and increase the number of fully operational ASU units.

“Liquid production plants’ construction will take minimum one year. Industrial production of oxygen should be channelled for the use of medical oxygen. That is the only way we can deal with this crisis,” he said.


Anjana Sankar

Anjana Sankar is a UAE-based journalist chasing global stories of conflict, migration and human rights. She has reported from the frontlines of the wars in Yemen and Syria and has extensively written on the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, Iraq and Europe. From interviewing Daesh militants to embedding with the UAE army in Yemen, and covering earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks and elections, she has come out scathe-free from the most dangerous conflict zones of the world. Riding on over 14 years of experience, Anjana currently is an Assistant Editor with Khaleej Times and leads the reporting team. She often speaks about women empowerment on her Facebook page that has 40,000 plus followers.

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