Several opposition parties on Wednesday castigated the Centre after it said that states did not specifically report any deaths due to oxygen shortages during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bharati Pravin Pawar, minister of state, Health and Family Welfare, said this in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday.

The minister’s statement triggered outrage on social media as India struggled with a grave oxygen crisis in the second wave of the pandemic. The shortages of the life-saving gas had 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.

Responding to the minister’s claim, the Aam Aadmi Party on Wednesday alleged that the Centre had blocked the Delhi government’s efforts to assess deaths due to oxygen shortages during the second wave of the coronavirus.

Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain said that oxygen shortages led to many deaths across the country, including in the national capital. “They [Centre] will soon say there was no Covid-19,” he told ANI. “If there were no deaths due to lack of oxygen, then why were hospitals going to the high court for shortages? This is completely false.”

He added that the Delhi government had formed a committee to assess deaths due to the lack of oxygen so that compensation could be provided. But it was stopped by the Centre through the lieutenant governor, Jain said. “The Centre is rubbing salt on wounds,” he added. “We’ll appeal the LG to allow us to run the committee.”

Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia accused the Centre of “shamelessly telling white lies” in the Parliament, PTI reported.

“There was utter chaos due to oxygen shortage after April 15 till May 5 and [for the Centre] there is no big deal that people would die due to oxygen shortage,” Sisodia said.

Sisodia added that the Delhi government would investigate all deaths due to oxygen shortages if the Centre allows it to form a panel. The Delhi deputy chief minister also alleged that the Centre’s mismanagement and change in oxygen-distribution policy led to shortages across the country.

AAP spokesperson Raghav Chadha said that the Centre was trying to conceal its own mismanagement. “We saw people gasping for breath outside hospitals in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other states,” Chadha said.

Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut accused the Centre of lying and said that a case should be filed against it, The Times of India reported. “I am speechless,” he said. ‘What would have happened to the families of those who lost their loved ones to oxygen shortage after hearing this statement?”

The BJP hit back at Raut for his “fake anguish”. “See how Hippocratic [sic] and shameless Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut is,” the party tweeted. “In May 2021, [Uddhav] Thackeray government had submitted a report to the Bombay High Court and claimed, no patient died due to shortage of oxygen. Centre prepared its report on basis of information forwarded by state government.”

The saffron party said Raut’s statements exposed the “shameless politics” of the coalition government in Maharashtra.

Telugu Desam Party spokesperson K Pattabhiram said that at least 30 people died in Andhra Pradesh due to the lack of oxygen, ANI reported. “More than 30 deaths were reported in one single incident in Ruia hospital in Tirupati,” he said. “Covid-19 patients died due to lack of oxygen in Vizianagaram, Kurnool and many other towns and cities in Andhra Pradesh because of the inefficiency of the central government in supplying oxygen on time to hospitals.”

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also hit out at the Centre for its statement. “The shortage was not just of oxygen, but also of sensitivity and truth,” he said. “It was true then, and it is true now as well.”

Gandhi’ sister and Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra tweeted: “No death due to lack of oxygen: Central government. The deaths happened because in the pandemic year, the government increased oxygen exports by about 700 %, because the government did not make arrangements for tankers transporting oxygen.”

Vadra accused the Centre of ignoring the advice of the Empowered Group and the Parliamentary Committee. “No arrangement was made to provide oxygen,” she claimed. “No initiative was seen in setting up oxygen plants in hospitals.”

On Tuesday, the Centre in the Rajya Sabha responded 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. Venugopal also asked what steps the government had taken to ensure there would be no scarcity of the life-saving gas during the imminent third wave of infections.

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.”

But the Centre had never asked states to compile deaths due to oxygen shortages, according to The Telegraph.

After this, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya also told Parliament that if there was any underreporting of Covid-19 deaths, it was the responsibility of states and not the Union government.

The Congress accused the Modi government of misleading the Rajya Sabha with such a claim. “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.”

Oxygen crisis

During the second wave of Covid-19, states experienced crippling shortages of oxygen, hospital beds, medical supplies and vaccines. At the peak of the wave in May, more than 4 lakh cases and thousands of deaths were being reported daily in the country.

Shortages of oxygen had forced families and friends of patients to plead for help on social media. Hospitals sent out SOS messages and even approached courts 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 insisted that not all deaths could 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.

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.