R Srinivasan

Oxygen crisis highlights India’s logistics problem

R Srinivasan | Updated on April 29, 2021

Oxygen crisis A result of relying on short-term solutions   -  AFP

A supply chain can only be as strong as its weakest link; a small fry cannot fix big problems

Global media headlines and visuals this week, despite stern letters of protests from our diplomatic missions abroad to editors of western media outlets, have tended to focus on one thing: India’s explosion of Coronavirus cases, and the heartbreaking sights of patients desperately waiting for hospital beds, even as relatives run around trying to arrange oxygen cylinders and medicines, and hospitals sending out SOS’s for oxygen supplies in social media.

The government’s first response was typical — it attempted to shoot the messenger. The Centre issued directives to hospitals not to use social media to ask for oxygen supplies, even as the police in BJP-run Uttar Pradesh started registering FIRs against people for tweeting about the oxygen crisis, even as UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath threatened to seize the assets of those indulging in such damaging exercises.

However, better sense appears to have prevailed and the response has started getting showing some semblance of cohesion. Industry was told to divert its production of oxygen for medical use only, which immediately ensured that there was adequate availability of raw oxygen.

That didn’t quite solve the problem. While scale producers of oxygen — mainly steel and metals producers and petrochemicals plants — readily agreed to divert their production, prompting the Health Ministry to issue a statement that India’s daily production capacity (7,287 MT) and Stock (50,000 MT) was “comfortably more than daily consumption (3,842 MT),” the trouble was that this production capacity was mostly designed for captive internal use and not for commercial production and distribution elsewhere.

There was also a geographical problem. Most of the oxygen production capacity was concentrated in Eastern India, while Delhi in the North and Maharashtra and Gujarat in the West were the worst affected and had the most pressing need for oxygen.

So, despite this massive surplus on paper, shortages continue to persist. States traded, and continue to trade, charges with each other and the Centre of bias and diversion of oxygen supplies. There were incidents of oxygen cylinders being looted, and High Courts around the country ordering the government to sort out the solution quickly.

But this is not a problem which can be sorted out by administrative or judicial fiat. Cryogenic containers cannot be manufactured overnight to transport compressed liquid oxygen. The millions of high pressure steel cylinders, regulators, and non-sparking valves and connectors needed to transport this “surplus” from steel plants and actually into the lungs of gasping patients cannot be created overnight.

Of course, we are a ‘jugaad’ nation, so solutions are being found. The Railways are now running RO-RO rakes of truck mounted cryogenic tankers. Empty ones are ferried to oxygen production plants, filled and transported to high demand centres before being offloaded and driven the last mile to the final destination.

The Indian Air Force is using its giant cargo planes to airlift oxygen cylinders. India Inc has swung into action, with many business houses organising the import of cryogenic containers of oxygen. Other countries too, have airlifted oxygen to India, while the Centre placed emergency orders to airlift 23 oxygen generation plants from Germany, to be set up at the worst-hit hospitals.

The mysterious PM_CARES fund said it will finance the setting up of oxygen plants at 551 district headquarter hospitals in the country. An emergency import tender for 50,000 MT of liquid oxygen was also floated though it is unclear when this will be actually executed.

An avoidable crisis

Of course, all of this could have been done long ago and the crisis needn’t have been a crisis at all — or at least not one of the scale we are witnessing. After this critical phase is over, one hopes that inquiries will be held, and accountability fixed for this inexplicable lack of action on a problem which was (according to media reports) identified at the highest level in April 2020 itself (during the first wave) and solutions suggested.

When experts were talking about a second wave during the first wave itself, it was a no-brainer to forecast increased demand for oxygen, but neither the government, nor, for matter the private healthcare sector, appears to have done anything to prepare for it.

But, as the Prime Minister has said, this is not the time for blame games. But India’s largely avoidable oxygen crisis highlights an old and familiar problem — an unwillingness to look at a problem holistically and come up with holistic solutions.

Our tendency as a nation is to focus on solving our immediate problem and let someone else worry about the big picture. No public transport? Why worry, as long as I can afford to buy myself a bike or car and solve my problem? Crumbling public health infrastructure? Who cares, as long one can afford private healthcare.

This is equally true for industry. Look at our large, global scale manufacturers, for instance. In terms of technology, they now compete with the world, and use similar tools to enhance productivity and drive down costs, including ‘just in time’ inventory management. But take a closer look at that ‘just in time’ cycle and you realise that it is actually resting on the investment and labour of tens of thousands of small players.

Nearly 70 per cent of India’s truck fleet, for instance, is under the category of ‘small fleet operator’, owning and operating less than five trucks. While there are a few scale players, and others who have specialised in certain areas (like car carriers, chemical transport, etc.), the fact remains that even in these specialised areas, bulk of the operators are individuals.

Very few of these companies have actively worked to develop a secure supply chain for themselves. They have simply put the money on the table for the final service and left it to others to figure out how to get that business. This works fine in normal times, but come a crisis (say hundreds of individual trucks getting stranded due to lockdowns/lack of money or lac of drivers) and your elaborate supply chain crumbles.

I have nothing against jugaad, but jugaad usually offers band-aid solutions. And as the oxygen crisis has demonstrated, when you are bleeding out from a major blood vessel, band-aids are no help.

The writer is former Editor, BusinessLine

Published on April 28, 2021

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