States did not specifically report any deaths due to oxygen shortages during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in India, Bharati Pravin Pawar, minister of state, Health and Family Welfare, told the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday.

The minister was responding to questions from Congress MP KC Venugopal on whether it was true that many Covid patients died on roads and hospitals due to shortages of oxygen and what steps the government has taken now to ensure that there would be no scarcity of the life-saving gas during the imminent third wave of infections.

India struggled with a grave oxygen crisis in the second wave of the pandemic. The shortages of the life-saving gas forced families and friends of patients to plead for help on social media. Hospitals sent out SOS messages as their oxygen stocks ran dangerously low.

On May 1, at least 12 patients died at Batra Hospital in Delhi after the facility fell short of oxygen. The hospital had confirmed that the deaths had taken place because of lack of oxygen.

On April 23, at least 20 patients under critical care died at Jaipur Golden Hospital in North West Delhi. The hospital cited a dip in oxygen pressure and approached the High Court to seek help in maintaining continuous supply.

In Karnataka’s Chamarajnagar, 24 patients died after a district hospital ran out of oxygen on May 2, though authorities insist not all deaths can be ascribed to the shortage. The Allahabad High Court on May 4 said that deaths of patients in hospitals due to a lack of oxygen “is a criminal act and not less than a genocide” by authorities.

Despite this, in response to Venugopal’s question, Pawar said: “Detailed guidelines for reporting of deaths have been issued by Union Health Ministry to all states/UTs [Union territories]. Accordingly, all states/UTs report cases and deaths to Union Health Ministry on a regular basis. However, no deaths due to lack of oxygen has been specifically reported by states/UTs.”

The minister said that the Centre came up with a transparent and dynamic framework to allot medical oxygen to states. “The first allocation order was issued on 15th April 2021 and revised from time to time, based on the trends of active cases and supply position, he said. “A total allocation of 10,250 MT [metric tonnes] has been done to 26 high burden states as on 28th May 2021.”

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She said that the states were provided oxygen cylinders, concentrators and Pressure Swing Adsorption plants. “A total of 4,02,517 oxygen cylinders have been procured/ are being procured and distributed to the states,” he added. “Also, 1222 PSA oxygen generation plants have been sanctioned. Out of these, as on 15th July, 2021, 237 plants have been commissioned. Apart from this, 295 PSA plants are being installed by different ministries.”

During the Rajya Sabha session on Tuesday, the Opposition criticised the Modi government for India’s oxygen crisis and the overall Covid-19 situation.

Trinamool Congress MP Shantanu Sen Shantanu said deaths of Covid patients because of the scarcity of oxygen was a matter of shame for India, PTI reported. “Lancet, the oldest medical journal, WHO [World Health Organization], Supreme Court and several high courts and even countries like Brazil, Canada and the UK have categorically criticised the Covid fighting policy of India,” he said. “What can be more shameful incidence for us?”

Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut said the Centre was busy sending oxygen to other countries while Covid-19 was spreading in India.

Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya countered accusations of Covid mismanagement. “We built the infrastructure from scratch,” he said, according to NDTV. “Hence the complete lockdown was necessary. Without that the spread would be rampant at a time we were not prepared.”

Mandaviya added, “When there’s need to work together and implementation has to be done by the states, at that time we never said this state failed or that state didn’t do this.”

Congress hits back at Centre

The Congress accused Pawar of misleading the Rajya Sabha with his claim, ANI reported.

“Government has given a reply today that nobody in the country died due to a shortage of oxygen,” Venugopal said. “In every state we saw how many patients died due to lack of oxygen. We know. We will move a privilege motion against that minister.”

Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said: “We all know that due to lack of oxygen many hospitals refused to admit patients and many [Covid patients] died. If they say so, then it’s the first government that neither listens to nor sees. People should teach a lesson to them.”

India’s oxygen crisis

India is still recovering from the aftermath of the devastating second wave of Covid-19, which at its peak saw more than 4 lakh daily cases in May, and thousands of death every day. States experienced crippling shortages of oxygen, hospital beds, medical supplies and vaccines.

The country’s oxygen crisis could have been partly diffused had India utilised the past year to create localised solutions in the form of small-scale oxygen generation plants within hospitals on a war footing.

It takes just four to six weeks to install a Pressure Swing Adsorption oxygen generator at a hospital, said industry players and government officials. The average cost comes to just Rs 1.25 crore, based on the Centre’s outlay of Rs 201 crore for 162 oxygen plants.

But an investigation by showed that the central government took eight months to float a tender, and six months later, PSA oxygen plants were operational in only five of the 60 hospitals we called. Hours after the report was published, the health ministry admitted only 33 of the 162 PSA oxygen plants it had commissioned had been installed.