Railways, Air Force being deployed to reduce transportation time for oxygen tankers: PM

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New Delhi, Apr 23 (PTI) Amid several states flagging scarcity of medical oxygen in the COVID-19 fight, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday said Railways and Air Force are being deployed to reduce the transportation time for oxygen tankers and all state governments need to work together to meet requirements of life-saving gas and medicines.

Chairing a high-level meeting with chief ministers of 11 states and union territories with maximum COVID-19 cases, Modi urged states to work as one and coordinate with one another to fulfil medical requirements, asserting that 'if we work as one nation, there will not be any scarcity of resources'.

Modi said every state should ensure that no oxygen tanker, irrespective of its destination, is stopped or gets stranded, a statement said.

The prime minister's call for coordination and working together to meet the spiralling health crisis comes amid multiple reports of medical oxygen supply being stopped at borders of one state or the other during transit.

Hospitals in many states have complained of a shortage in their oxygen supply and sent out SOS messages, requiring the government to take urgent measures to increase the production and supply of the life-saving gas.

Modi noted that the Railways and Air Force have been deployed to reduce the travel time of oxygen tankers and assured states of the Centre's full support in the fight against the pandemic.

The meeting with the chief ministers also saw a controversy with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's decision to telecast his comments live during the interaction with Prime Minister Modi drawing disapproval from the latter, who chided him for 'breaking protocol'. Later, the Union government officials accused the AAP leader of 'playing politics'.

The prime minister also expressed his displeasure during the interaction over the issue, saying 'this is strictly against our tradition, our protocol... that some Chief Minister is showing a live telecast of an in-house meeting.' 'This is not appropriate. One should always maintain restraint,' Modi said, prompting a defensive Kejriwal to say that he will keep this in mind in future and offered an apology in case he had made a 'mistake or spoken harshly'.

It was the prime minister's third meeting with chief ministers in the last five weeks, while he also held his fourth review meeting in one week to review the oxygen availability situation, officials said.

Later, at a virtual meeting with leading oxygen manufacturers, Prime Minister Modi called for utilising the industry's full potential to meet the demand of medical oxygen in the coming days, saying there is a need to increase the availability of oxygen cylinders as well as to upgrade logistical facilities for its transportation.

In his interaction with the oxygen manufacturers, including Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries, Modi urged the industry to utilise tankers meant to transport other gases for oxygen supply, saying the time now is not only to deal with the challenges but also to provide solutions in a very short time.

In his meeting with the CMs, Modi asked states to take stringent measures against hoarding and black marketing of essential medicines and injections.

He also called for making people continuously aware so that they do not indulge in panic buying. He said that with united efforts, they will together be able to stop this second wave of the pandemic across the country.

With some opposition-ruled states criticizing the Centre's recently announced vaccination policy as discriminatory against states, Modi said that the Union government has already provided them more than 15 crore doses free of cost.

Noting that the virus is affecting several states as well as tier 2 and tier 3 cities at once, the prime minister called for working together to fight the pandemic with collective power.

He said the biggest reason for India's success during the first wave of the pandemic was its united efforts and strategy and reiterated that the Centre and states will have to address this challenge in the same way.

Taking note of the points raised by chief ministers on the issue of oxygen supply, Modi said there is a continuous effort to boost it and all related departments and ministries are also working together. Industrial oxygen has also been diverted to meet immediate requirements, he noted.

He said each state should ensure that no oxygen tanker, irrespective of which state it is headed for, is stopped or gets stranded, and urged the chief ministers to set up a high-level coordination committee to carry oxygen to different hospitals of the state.

This coordination committee should ensure that as soon as there is an allotment of oxygen from the Centre, it can deliver oxygen as per requirement in different hospitals of the state immediately, he said.

Asserting that the Centre is working on all possible options to reduce the travel and turnaround time of oxygen tankers, he said the railways has started Oxygen Express while empty oxygen tankers are also being transported by the Air Force to reduce one way travel time.

The Indian Air Force has airlifted empty oxygen containers to various filling stations across the country and deployed its aircraft for transportation of medical personnel and medicines in helping civil authorities deal with surging COVID-19 cases.

The IAF has deployed its C-17 and IL-76 heavy-lift aircraft for transportation of oxygen containers to filling stations, officials said.

The Railways is also acting on requests of various states in transporting oxygen. Railway Board Chairman Suneet Sharma said, 'We have received a request from Delhi just now, and we are still planning its movement. We will likely get the oxygen from Rourkela.' 'Andhra Pradesh has asked for oxygen to be moved from Angul in Odisha. We have asked the Delhi government to keep their trucks ready, and our wagons, ramps are ready in the NCR area,' he added.

Sharma said the 'Oxygen Express' train headed for Uttar Pradesh will reach Lucknow on Saturday, and the one for Maharashtra will reach Nagpur on Friday night and then proceed towards Nashik, from where oxygen will be dispersed to different cities.

In his meeting with the CMs, Modi said that along with upgrading of resources, states have to focus on testing for the infection. He stressed that widespread testing should be conducted so that people get the facility easily.

Modi also said that the ongoing vaccination programme should not slow down, noting that more than 13 crore vaccine doses have been provided free of cost to the states by his government so far.

The campaign launched by the central government to provide free vaccine to all citizens above 45 years as well as health care and front line workers will also continue, he said.

Noting that the vaccine will be available to all citizens above 18 years of age from May 1, he said they all need to work in mission mode to get more and more people vaccinated.

Expressing grief on recent incidents of oxygen leakage and fire at hospitals, Modi said along with all measures for the treatment of the patients, hospital safety is also very important. The administrative staff of the hospital needs to be made more aware of the safety protocols, he added.

Thirteen COVID-19 patients died in the blaze at the intensive care unit of a private hospital in Virar in Maharashtra, police said on Friday.

At least 22 patients had died on Wednesday due to the interrupted supply of oxygen at a civic hospital for COVID-19 patients in Nashik in Maharashtra following the leakage from an oxygen storage plant.

In the meeting of Modi with chief ministers, a presentation was made by NITI Aayog member V K Paul that highlighted the preparations being made to counter the new surge of infections. Paul also presented the roadmap for increasing the medical facilities and targeted treatment of patients, the statement said.

During the interaction, chief ministers of states, which included Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh, briefed Modi about the steps being taken by them in the current wave.

They said the directions given by the prime minister and the road map presented by NITI Aayog would help them plan their responses in a better way, the statement added.

With a record single-day rise of 3,32,730 new coronavirus infections, India's total tally of COVID-19 cases climbed to 1,62,63,695, while active cases crossed the 24-lakh mark, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated on Friday. PTI KR ASK BJ BJ BJ BJ