There was no committee set up to oversee the supply of medical oxygen during the coronavirus pandemic, the Centre has said, The Hindu reported on Sunday. Last week, the Central Information Commission had directed the Modi government to share details about the panel in response to a Right to Information request.

During the devastating second wave of the pandemic in April, when India recorded a huge number of Covid-19 infections and was struggling with shortages of medical supplies, journalist Saurav Das had filed an RTI request seeking information about a nine-member Empowered Committee responsible for dealing with medical oxygen.

The committee was set up last year under the Ministry of Commerce’s Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal trade, according to an order issued on April 4, 2020. The objective of the committee, the order stated, was to ensure “adequate supply of medical oxygen” wherever required in India. The chairperson of the panel was Guruprasad Mohapatra, secretary of the DPIIT.

Saurav Das had sought details about the dates, agenda and minutes of the committee’s meetings as well as the presentations made before it.

The central public information officer responded to the journalist on June 11 but refused to divulge any information. He cited sections of the RTI Act that allow the government to withhold information prejudicial to the country’s “security, strategic, scientific, or economic interests”.

He also claimed that disclosing information related to the Empowered Group would “irreparably harm the competitive position of government and private entities”.

The Central Information Commission, the top appellate body under the Right to Information Act, had rejected the officer’s arguments on July 29. It said that the denial of details in a blanket manner was not justified and that the exemptions cited by the officer appeared to be “an afterthought that seemed far-fetched”.

After this, the central public information officer on August 6 claimed that there was an “inadvertent error” and “misreading” of the RTI application to blatantly deny the existence of the committee.

“No such committee was set up in the month of April 2020 under the chairmanship of Secretary, DPIIT, Shri Guruprasad Mohapatra, to ensure adequate availability of medical oxygen in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said, according to The Hindu.

Das told the newspaper that he will file a non-compliance petition with the RTI body regarding this dramatic U-turn. “The records of this committee must be made public as it handled the crucial issue of medical oxygen,” he added. “Given its stated objectives, the committee clearly recognised the issues at stake back in April 2020, so what did they do about it? This gains significance in the light of the chaos and disaster caused by oxygen shortages during the second wave of the pandemic.”

As per the RTI Act, Das added, that the central public information officer was liable for penal action.

India’s oxygen crisis

India struggled with a grave oxygen crisis in the second wave of the pandemic, which peaked in April and May. The shortages of the life-saving gas as well as medicines and hospital beds 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. Several reports emerged of patients dying because of oxygen shortages.

But on July 20, the Centre told the Parliament that states did not specifically report any deaths due to oxygen shortages. Opposition leaders and health experts derided the Centre for making such a claim, saying that the response was rather bureaucratic and reflected its denial mode.

A week after that, the Centre asked the states and Union territories to share data on deaths due to the shortage of oxygen. The government is likely present the data in the Parliament before the Monsoon Session ends on August 13.