Punjab gasps as India’s Modi refuses to seek oxygen from Pakistan

Repeated requests by Punjab leaders to import life-saving gas from ‘enemy nation’ go unheeded by federal government.

Empty oxygen cylinders kept at a local health facility in Bhatinda, Punjab [Lalita Verma/Al Jazeera]

Amritsar, India – Amid an alarming shortage of medical oxygen, the Punjab government approached Prime Minister Narendra Modi to facilitate an “oxygen corridor” with Pakistan, India’s archrival neighbour which shares a 550km-long (342 miles) border with the northwestern state.

There have been at least eight instances of requests made by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and other politicians from the state asking Modi to procure oxygen from Pakistan, whose city of Lahore is barely 50km (31 miles) away from Amritsar.

The demand to procure oxygen from Pakistan came after the country’s Prime Minister Imran Khan offered help to India on April 25. Pakistan’s prominent Edhi charity also volunteered to send medical aid amid rising COVID-19 cases in the country.

However, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government refused to seek any help from its “enemy nation”, amid a lethal second wave of the coronavirus killing thousands of people daily.

A technician unloading empty oxygen cylinders in a hospital in Ludhiana [Gurkirat Singh/Al Jazeera]

“This denial is proving to be deadly for patients in Punjab who don’t know which breath would be their last breath,” member of parliament from Amritsar, Gurjit Singh Aujla, told Al Jazeera.

Aujla was the first to write to Modi on April 26 seeking a special oxygen corridor with Pakistan as it was geographically proximate. When he did not hear back from the prime minister, he wrote again on April 27, followed by more letters on May 2 and May 5.

Meanwhile, Singh also released a statement on May 4, stating that the centre had rejected his proposal to allow Punjab’s local industry body to import oxygen from Pakistan through the Wagah-Attari border near Amritsar.

While more than 10 days have passed since the centre’s refusal, the disrupted oxygen supply chain in Punjab is yet to be restored.

Last week, at least three hospitals in Amritsar issued desperate SOS calls, saying their oxygen buffer had depleted. The local administration arranged the life-saving gas from a neighbouring district.

A government official privy to the crisis, requesting anonymity, said he had lost count of the number of SOS messages released by the hospitals in the past few days. “Every day, every few hours, there is an SOS call by some hospital,” he told Al Jazeera.

Patients wearing masks waiting their turn in the lobby of a hospital in Bhatinda [Lalita Verma/Al Jazeera]

From 3,003 new coronavirus cases reported within 24 hours in Punjab on April 13 to 6,947 recorded on May 17, there has been more than a twofold rise in infections in the state in a month.

As of Monday, there were 73,616 active cases in the state, which are likely to cross 100,000 by next week.

The state government data shows out of these active cases, at least 25-30 percent of the patients need regular oxygen support. India’s health ministry calculates that a severe COVID-19 patient needs between 10-60 litres of oxygen per minute.

On April 24, six patients lost their lives in Amritsar’s Neelkanth Hospital after the facility ran out of oxygen, the hospital’s managing director, Sunil Devgan told Al Jazeera.

“On April 23, our hospital was alarmingly short on oxygen. From 20 cylinders in a day, our consumption increased to 100 cylinders due to the pandemic. On the night of April 23, we kept on losing patients almost every half an hour,” he said.

Of the six people who died that night at the hospital because of oxygen shortage, five were undergoing treatment for COVID-19.

“Despite countless SOS calls, no one came to our help. Even now, after so many days, we struggle to get oxygen on time. After instructions from the Punjab administration, we don’t admit severe COVID-19 patients now,” Devgan said.

Daily oxygen consumption in Punjab on April 30 was 203.8 metric tonnes (MT). On May 7, it reached 250.6 MT, increasing by almost 50 MT within a week. On May 17, it jumped to 304 MT.

However, Punjab’s oxygen quota was increased by the central government to 247 MT on May 11, after desperate requests were made by the state for two weeks for at least 300 MT of daily supply.

Out of the allocated 247 MT of oxygen, nearly 70 MT is sourced from a plant in Bokaro, a city in the eastern state of Jharkhand more than 1,750 km (1,088 miles) away. Hospitals in Punjab say oxygen from Bokaro barely reaches them on time.

As of May 7, there was a shortfall of 211 MT of oxygen from other plants in the country as well because of logistical issues, with officials saying Punjab’s daily oxygen requirement is far more than what reaches the state each day.

Amid logistical challenges to source oxygen from Jharkhand, Singh on May 10 again urged Modi to increase the total quota of oxygen from plants in states closer to Punjab.

Doctors checking oxygen concentrators amid shortage of oxygen in Punjab. Credit – Gurkirat Singh

“Why wait for oxygen from Bokaro, 1,758 kilometres away when we can get oxygen from Lahore just 50 kilometers away?” Aujla told Al Jazeera.

The parliamentarian suggested that the two countries can create a system of barter where they can exchange essential resources they need.

“At a time when cases are also rising in Pakistan, this system of resource sharing via the Wagah-Attari border can be serviceable for both countries,” he said.

“India is already taking aid from China and other Islamic countries. If it is too ashamed to take help from its so-called enemy, then we can pay Pakistan or exchange sugar or wheat as a barter.

“If we can offer vaccines to Pakistan, then why not take oxygen from them? Who knows it might improve our relations with Pakistan,” he said.

Relations between the two countries have remained tense since the Indian subcontinent got independence from British rule in 1947 and was divided through a bloody partition to form the Muslim-majority Pakistan.

The two nuclear-armed nations have fought two of their three major wars over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, which they claim in full but rule over parts of, with tensions between them coming to a peak in 2019 when India scrapped the special status of the portion of Kashmir it controls.

However, in a rare thaw in their relations earlier this year, the two countries reaffirmed their commitment to a 2003 ceasefire agreement along their disputed border in Kashmir. That thaw was followed by letters exchanged between Modi and Khan, in which the two leaders stressed the need for dialogue and cordial relations.

Apart from writing to Modi, Aujla had also sent multiple letters to federal Health Minister Harsh Vardhan. He also approached the foreign ministry headed by Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on April 29 and parliament’s speaker Om Birla. He said only Birla replied to him.

When asked by Al Jazeera for formal comments on the matter, India’s foreign ministry denied there was any correspondence with Punjab regarding the import of oxygen from Pakistan. Vardhan and other health ministry’s secretaries also did not answer the emailed queries sent by Al Jazeera.

BJP spokesman Vijay Chauthaiwale said he would not comment on the matter as it was related to bilateral relations between India and Pakistan.

Aujla is worried. “The situation in Punjab is even worse than hand to mouth. A tragedy is waiting to happen,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera