In a corner of his cramped office, amidst piles of steel sheets, Ajay Gupta is in a discussion with his staff on ways to jack up oxygen production.
Until August, the Air Suppression Unit (ASU) at Gupta’s factory in Bhopal would run for about 10 hours a day, using atmospheric air to make oxygen amounting to 325 cylinders, of which about 250 would be supplied to steel and other industries in Bhopal. The rest he would use at his factory for the cutting and welding of steel sheets.
But, on September 17, the state government directed Gupta and the 10 other ASU owners in Madhya Pradesh to increase capacity and supply 90 per cent of their oxygen to hospitals.
The order came amidst rising Covid cases in the state, pushing up demand for medical oxygen from around 50 tonnes in February to about 130 tonnes in September; it’s expected to reach about 180 tonnes by October end. The state had about 20,473 active Covid cases as of Oct 1, of which about 20 per cent need oxygen.
“Since August 21, I have been running my plant for at least 17 hours daily to produce about 700 oxygen cylinders. We are looking at running the plant 24×7,” said Gupta.
With no in-house production of liquified oxygen in Madhya Pradesh, much of its medical and industrial needs are met from neighbouring states, primarily Maharashtra. However, in early September, Maharashtra — itself dealing with rising Covid cases —directed its producers to restrict supplies outside the state. Since then, hospitals in Jabalpur and Indore, among other districts in Madhya Pradesh, have been hit.
While the Central government on September 18 urged states not to put any restrictions on movement of oxygen, supply remains affected.
MP’s 11 ASUs manufacture oxygen on a much smaller scale and mostly to meet the needs of local steel industries.
According to S Dhanraju, who is part of the state government’s core team regulating the supply of oxygen, of the total medical demand of 120 metric tonnes per day, the ASUs provide 65 metric tonnes while the remaining is brought as liquified oxygen from Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. It is then filled in gaseous state into cylinders and supplied to hospitals by dealers.
Gupta’s phone rings every few minutes, mostly calls from hospitals, some as far off as Dewas, 150 km away. His Bharati Air Products, the only ASU in Bhopal, caters to about 70 hospitals. “We have to turn down oxygen requests from outside the district,” he says.
Overseeing the loading of cylinders near the ASU is the district’s monitoring officer, Mohammad Sharik. “We are here to ensure that all the oxygen cylinders from the plant are sent only to hospitals,” says Sharik. Police have also been roped in to ensure cylinders are not diverted, and to provide protection to officials following protests by owners of industries over the government denying them oxygen.
Industrial units say the government’s order diverting 90 per cent oxygen for medical use has led to severe black marketing. Adarsh Goswami, President of the Federation of the Chamber for Commerce and Industries of Madhya Pradesh, said, “Production at fabrication and pharmaceutical industries is near standstill.”
One of the cylinders from Bharati is headed for Green City Hospital. Dr Ravi Saxena, Director of the hospital that has about 10 beds dedicated for Covid patients covered under the Ayushman Bharat scheme, says his oxygen demand has more than doubled to at least 35 a day. “Some days more patients go on ventilators and we send our boys to the ASUs and get the cylinders ourselves.”
Recently, there has also been a crunch of cylinders, and hospitals are being told to procure own and get them filled. Bhopal District Collector Avinash Lavaniya said, “These cylinders are bigger, with 25 times the capacity.”
Principal Secretary for Industries Sanjay Kumar Shukla said the state is working to revive at least six other oxygen plants that had gone defunct, most of them over the past five years, owing to poor demand and high maintenance cost. That will add another 30 metric tonnes of oxygen. Besides, storage tanks are being set up in all government hospitals across the state for liquid oxygen.
In a bid to ensure oxygen is used judiciously, the health and medical department has held training for hospital staff, after it was found that they were using oxygen 1.5 times the ICMR’s advice of 7.14 litres/per minute for patients with moderate symptoms and 11.9 litres/per minute for severe patients.
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