Rashfaq Ahmad Bhat had been turned away from three hospitals in Jammu and Kashmir at the beginning of May this year as a deadly second wave of Covid-19 raged across India, infecting millions of people and leading to an acute shortage of beds and medical oxygen.
Desperate to save the life of his 55-year-old mother Naseema Bano, whose oxygen saturation was dipping dangerously low, he turned to the only other people who he knew were helping ordinary citizens in the troubled Indian federal territory – non-profits and private individuals stepping in to fill the gap in demand.
“The doctors told us that she needs oxygen and that she would not survive without it,” says Bhat. “But they did not have [an oxygen bed].”
As Kashmiris struggled to breathe in the holy month of Ramadan, it was these private individuals who stepped in to supply oxygen cylinders to those in desperate need, often working round the clock, and sometimes even unable to return home to break their fast with sehri, the traditional pre-dawn meal.
“As soon as I saw the situation in Delhi getting bad, I reached out to my friends asking them for help in arranging oxygen cylinders,” shares 50-year-old Iqbal Jaan Zargar. “My friends asked me ‘what would I do with these oxygen cylinders, once the crisis is over?’”
“I said, ‘We will throw it in the river. But till then, let’s try saving as many lives as possible.’ Together, we pooled over 40 cylinders that I started supplying to the families for free.”
Zargar was joined in his efforts by 43-year-old Ansar Ahmad. Dressed in his PPE kit, he loaded the cylinders onto his Tempo and transferred them to the families in need. Sometimes he would miss sehri – the meal Muslims eat before dawn during Ramadan to prepare them for their fast. “I can live without food for a few hours, even days, but how would they live without oxygen even for a minute?” he asks.
Read more from the Covid in Kashmir series:
Within a week, Zargar, along with Ahmad, was supplying oxygen cylinders to more than 50 families round the clock. But administrative diktats came up as roadblocks in their efforts.
The administration of the capital, Srinagar, directed oxygen manufacturing units in the city to stop providing refills to private persons, societies and non-governmental organisations in a bid “to prevent black marketing of medical oxygen”.
It further told private bodies to register their “genuine demand” with a nodal officer at the Covid-19 war room established by the administration.
“I could not sleep the whole night,” shares Zargar. “There were these families who were dependent on me – their loved ones would have died. How could I have turned around suddenly and said that I cannot help you any further,” he asks.
“If hospitals were that efficient then why did they not send oxygen cylinders along with the patients while discharging them?” he says.
District magistrate Mohammad Aijaz says the decision was made in order to ensure “fair and equal access to oxygen supply”.
“To provide fair and equal access to oxygen supply to the neediest patients, things have been streamlined. Scuttlebutt has it as if somebody is being prevented. Not at all. In fact, a proper mechanism in place will ensure regular supply in a smooth manner,” he tweeted.
The order did not sit well with people, especially since it followed on the heels of another administrative notice imposing a media gag on doctors and health officials, asking them to “desist” from speaking to news reporters. Called the “oxygen gag”, the order drew sharp reaction from politicians and NGOs.
“I called up a lot of people in the administration,” recalls Zargar. “I told them that I don’t want an award or appreciation, I just want to help because in [the] Quran, it says ‘to save one life is to save the entire mankind’,” he says. “I did not want things to turn the way they had turned in Delhi where people were waiting outside gasping for breath.”
NGOs in Kashmir acknowledge that there is black marketing and hoarding which needs to be countered.
“The order is a way of regulating the oxygen supply to NGOs and private individuals ... making them accountable,” Mohammad Afaaq Sayeed, who heads the oxygen unit of the charitable trust Social Reforms Organisation, tells The Independent.
“What they did was, [they] asked us to seek permission from the administration for the refill that we require every day,” he says. “We agitated before the administration saying that it is not possible to move a request on a day to day basis.”
After some backlash and several rounds of talks between the administration and NGOs, the organisations were allowed to carry on with the oxygen relief work in Srinagar. But the process is cumbersome.
“We got blanket permission to procure oxygen for seven days,” says Sayeed. “And after every seven days, we file a report detailing the consumption and procurement. We get an extension following that.”
But while big NGOs and individuals like Zargar were able to work around the system, there are also those who feel harassed by the procedure.
Mohammad Langoo, the owner of Langoo Gas Agency, says his shop was sealed following the order. He was one of the few people providing free gas refills to Zargar.
“Someone had wrongly filed a complaint that I was filling CO2 cylinders with oxygen,” he says.
“I had to file a lot of paperwork before the district administration to remove the seal from the shop,” he says. While the shop was unsealed on 25 May, Langoo says, he is yet to hear from the nodal officer over his appeal to be allowed to supply oxygen cylinders to families.
“What do I do, if not wait? I have sent a request to the nodal officer which is pending for days. Unless he gives a green light, I would not be able to send oxygen cylinders,” he says as Kashmiris wait for the peak to be over so they can breathe easy.