Steel plants and oil refineries, e-commerce startups and smartphone makers, everybody has come together to boost oxygen supply in India’s fight against the second wave of the virus.
As the deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic intensified in India in April, the country faced a gigantic and seemingly insurmountable challenge--an acute shortage of oxygen. From usual levels of 7,200 metric tonnes per day, demand for oxygen in hospitals across the country spiralled over 8 times to nearly 60,000 tonnes per day. It sent everybody scrambling and India’s corporate sector sprang to action as a saviour.
Most big manufacturing plants in the country quickly sacrificed the industrial oxygen that they need to be converted to medical oxygen for use in hospitals. Major steel plants in the country were first to act--it helped that India is world’s second-largest steel producer. From early April itself as cases started rising in the country, companies like Steel Authority of India Ltd, Tata Steel, JSW and Jindal Steel and Power Ltd gradually prioritised supply of medical oxygen over their own needs. By mid-April, these companies were despatching 1500-1700 metric tonnes per day which by early May had more than doubled to 3,680.3 MT.
In a matter of another 5 days, this was further enhanced to a total of 4686 MT of Liquid Medical Oxygen (LMO) on 10th May. It included 1193 MT by SAIL, 180 MT by RINL, 1425 MT by TATA group, 1300 by JSW, and rest by other steel companies in the public and private sector.
Similarly, stainless steel maker Jindal Stainless has ramped up its supply to 9.5 tonnes/day on an average from its Hisar factory to nearly 50+ medical facilities in Haryana and Delhi-NCR. Its Odisha unit has also been supplying 40 tonnes/day LMO to several medical facilities in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
India’s biggest company Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) also got into the act as in a matter of weeks it became country’s largest producer of medical-grade liquid oxygen from a single location. At its refineries in Jamnagar and other locations in the country, RIL is currently producing over 11 percent of India's total production of medical grade liquid oxygen meeting the needs of nearly every 1 in 10 patients in the country. In the month of April, Reliance supplied over 15,000 MT of medical grade liquid oxygen free of cost and since the beginning of the pandemic in March last year, it has so far supplied over 55,000 MT across the country.
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“For me and for all of us at Reliance, nothing is more important than saving every life as India battles against a new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mukesh Ambani, RIL Chairman and Managing Director. “There is an immediate need to maximise India’s production and transportation capacities for medical grade oxygen. I am proud of our engineers at Jamnagar who have worked tirelessly, with a great sense of patriotic urgency, to meet this new challenge.”
Reliance’s public sector counterparts in the oil sector have also pitched in. Indian Oil Corporation’s Panipat refinery is now producing 270 MT of medical oxygen per day which is being rationed between Haryana (80 MT), Punjab (20 MT) and Delhi. Similarly, BPCL has started supply of 100 tonnes of oxygen at no cost. It is also supplying 1.5 tonnes per day of medical oxygen to Kerala from its Kochi Refinery. Last year, the company had supplied around 25 tonnes of medical oxygen during the peak in the first wave of Covid in October-November.
To help in this time of crisis, mining major Vedanta Ltd owned Sterlite Copper has also commenced production of medical oxygen at its copper smelter in Tamil Nadu. The factory was shut in 2018 on charges of violation of environmental norms but has been allowed to operate for four months to supply oxygen. The first tanker of 4.8 tonnes was despatched on May 12.
Then there are others that cannot produce oxygen on their own but have loosened their purse strings or used their clout to source oxygen from other places. Logistics firm Allcargo has offered to ship 500 oxygen concentrators from Singapore for the Maharashtra government. Adani Group has procured 48 cryogenic tanks capable of carrying 780 tonnes of liquid oxygen across the nation from leading manufacturers in countries like Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan and UAE.
Similarly, startups like Delhivery and Zomato have teamed up to raise around Rs 50 crore for sourcing oxygen concentrators and other medical supplies. Travel portal EaseMyTrip’s co-founder Rikant Pitti has offered to import 150 oxygen concentrators into India and smartphone market leader Xiaomi has pledged around Rs 3 crore to procure more than 1,000 oxygen concentrators.
This is all reminiscent of last year when India was facing a shortage of medical equipment, ventilators, sanitizers, masks and PPE kits. In a span of weeks, car companies were making ventilators, sugar mills and liquor producers were bottling hand sanitisers and apparel companies were diversified into masks and protective clothing. From being forced to import PPE kits in April 2020, India emerged as the second-largest producer of it by the end of the year.
It did not necessarily require a reiteration but the second wave of Covid has once again shown not only the ingenuity of India’s corporate world but also that it has its heart in the right place. In times like these, business comes later.