Amidst the rising demand for oxygen from several states due to rising Covid-19 cases, the Supreme Court of India has set up a National Task Force to streamline medical oxygen allocation across the country on a “scientific, rational and equitable basis”.
A bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud, in its order, constituted a 12 member National Task Force (NTF) on Friday to assess, recommend the need and distribution of oxygen for the entire country. The court said that the NTF which has medical experts and doctors from across the country as its members will have the Cabinet Secretary to the central government as its convenor.
While constituting the Task Force, the court specified that the purpose of it would be to assess and make recommendations to the central government. The allocation of medical oxygen would, however, remain with the central government, said the court. It may be noted that the central govt had agreed to the formation of the task force during the hearing in the matter.
The names included in the Task Force are:
- Dr Bhabatosh Biswas, Former Vice-Chancellor, West Bengal University of Health Sciences, Kolkata
- Dr Devender Singh Rana, Chairperson, Board of Management, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi
- Dr Devi Prasad Shetty, Chairperson and Executive Director, Narayana Healthcare, Bengaluru
- Dr Gagandeep Kang, Professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu
- Dr JV Peter, Director, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu
- Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairperson and Managing Director, Medanta Hospital and Heart Institute, Gurugram
- Dr Rahul Pandit, Director, Critical Care Medicine and ICU, Fortis Hospital, Mulund (Mumbai, Maharashtra) and Kalyan (Maharashtra)
- Dr Saumitra Rawat, Chairman & Head, Department of Surgical Gastroenterology and Liver Transplant, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital
- Dr Shiv Kumar Sarin, Senior Professor and Head of Department of Hepatology, Director, Institute of Liver and Biliary Science (ILBS), Delhi
- Dr Zarir F Udwadia, Consultant Chest Physician, Hinduja Hospital, Breach Candy Hospital and Parsee General Hospital, Mumbai
- Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India (ex officio member)
- The Convenor of the National Task Force, who shall also be a member, will be the Cabinet Secretary to the Centre
The court informed that the Union Government had suggested possible names to be included in the Task Force.
While passing the order, the apex court bench comprising of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah specified that NTF would be entrusted with addressing issues relating to streamlining medical oxygen allocation to different various states. It would derive methodologies for the allocation of medical oxygen to the States and UTs on a scientific and equitable basis.
Further, NTF would review and suggests measures to ensure the availability of essential and crucial medicines. Additionally, it would work out corrective measures to ensure better preparedness for future emergencies and also facilitate audits to determine whether the supplies allocated by the central government reach the concerned state to Union territory, said the court.
Supreme Court orders audit of oxygen supply to states
Another significant decision of the Supreme Court in the matter was audit of oxygen supplies to various states and union territories. During the hearing, the union govt had said that an audit of the oxygen use by the states is needed as the demand by several states are not realistic. The Delhi govt had opposed this proposal.
But the Supreme Court agreed with the centre and said that the Task Force will facilitate audits by sub-groups within each State and UT to determine whether they are receiving oxygen allotted by the centre, efficacy of the oxygen distribution networks, effectiveness and transparency of the supply, and accountability in regard to the utilisation oxygen supplied to the states.
The apex court said that the Task Force will constitute sub-groups/committees for such oxygen audit comprising one state govt official, one central govt official, two doctors, and A representative from the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO). For Delhi, the court said that the sub-committee will consist of AIIMS Delhi director, Dr Randeep Guleria, Max Healthcare director Dr Sandeep Budhiraja, and one IAS officers each from the central and state govt.
The Court made it clear that the purpose of conducting audits is not to scrutinise the decisions made in good faith by doctors while treating their patients. The court said, “the purpose of conducting audits is to ensure accountability in respect of the supplies of oxygen provided to every State/UT. The purpose is to ensure that the supplies which have been allocated are reaching their destination; that they are being made available through the distribution network to the hospitals or, as the case may be, the end-users efficiently and on a transparent basis; and to identify bottlenecks or issues in regard to the utilization of oxygen.”
Supreme Court explains rationale behind formation of the Task Force
Explaining the logic behind its decision to set up the task force, the two-judge bench said: “The rationale for constituting a Task Force at a national level is to facilitate public health response to the pandemic based on scientific and specialised domain knowledge. We expect leading experts in the country shall associate with the Task Force, as members and resource persons,” the court said.
“This will facilitate a meeting of minds and the formulation of scientific strategies to deal with an unprecedented human crisis,” the court added in its final order, asking the Union and state governments, ministries, agencies and departments to “provide complete and real-time data for facilitating the work of the task force”.
Task Force would only have advisory powers
The court in its order cleared that the NFT would, however, have only advisory powers. The court said that based on the Task Force’s recommendations, the union government would take appropriate decision in regard to the allocation of oxygen and all other recommendations. It said that the Task Force shall also share its suggestions from time to time with the apex court.
Saying so, the court requested the Task Force to commence work immediately. The SC recommended that initially, the tenure of this Task Force would be six months and asked the central government to provide all necessary assistance to it.
The apex court concluded that the proceedings of the Task Force should be listed before it on May 17, 2021.