Amritsar, India – Amid an alarming shortage of medical oxygen, the Punjab government turned to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to facilitate an “oxygen corridor” with Pakistan, India’s neighbor, which shares a 550km border of length (342 miles) with the northwestern state.
There have been at least eight cases of requests from the chief minister of the Punjab, Amarinder Singh, and other state politicians asking Modi to provide oxygen to Pakistan, the city of Lahore is just 50 km (31 km) away. miles) from Amritsar.
The demand for oxygen in Pakistan came after the country’s prime minister, Imran Khan, offered aid to India on April 25. The prominent Pakistani edhi charity also volunteered to send medical aid amid rising COVID-19 cases in the country.
However, the Hindu nationalist government of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) refused to call for help from its “enemy nation” amid a second lethal wave of the coronavirus that killed thousands of people daily.
“This denial is proving deadly for Panjab patients who do not know what breathing would be their last breath,” Amritsar parliament member Gurjit Singh Aujla told Al Jazeera.
Aujla was the first to write to Modi on April 26 looking for a special oxygen corridor with Pakistan as it was geographically close. When he had no news of the Prime Minister, he wrote again on April 27, followed by more letters on May 2 and 5.
Meanwhile, Singh also issued a statement on May 4 stating that the center had rejected its proposal to allow the local Punjab industry body to import oxygen from Pakistan across the Wagah-Attari border, near of Amritsar.
Although more than ten days have passed since the center’s refusal, the disruption of the oxygen supply chain in Punjab has yet to be restored.
Last week, at least three hospitals in Amritsar made desperate SOS calls, saying their oxygen buffer had run out. The local administration fixed the lifeline gas from a neighboring district.
A private government official in the crisis, who asked for anonymity, said he had lost the number of SOS messages posted by hospitals in recent days. “Every day, every few hours, there is an SOS call from some hospital,” he told Al Jazeera.
From 3,003 coronavirus patients in Punjab on April 13 to 6,947 patients on May 17, there has been more than a double increase in infections in the state in one month.
As of Monday, there were 73,616 active cases in the Punjab, which is likely to cross 100,000 next week.
State government data show that of these active cases, at least 25 to 30 percent of patients need regular oxygen care. The Indian Ministry of Health estimates that a severe COVID-19 patient needs between 10 and 60 liters of oxygen per minute.
On April 24, six patients lost their lives at Neelkanth Hospital in Amritsar after the facility ran out of oxygen, Sunil Devgan, the hospital’s general manager, told Al Jazeera.
“On April 23, our hospital had an alarming amount of oxygen. From 20 cylinders a day, our consumption increased to 100 cylinders due to the pandemic. On the night of April 23, we continued to lose patients almost every half hour, ”he said.
Of the six people who died that night in hospital due to oxygen shortages, five were on COVID-19 treatment.
“Despite countless SOS calls, no one helped us. Even now, after so many days, we struggle to get oxygen on time. Following the instructions of the Punjab administration, we now do not admit serious patients of COVID-19, ”Devgan said.
Daily oxygen consumption in Punjab on April 30 was 203.8 metric tons (MT). On May 7 it reached 250.6 tons, up nearly 50 tons in one week. On May 17 it jumped to 304 MT.
However, the central government increased Punjab’s oxygen quota to 247 tonnes on May 11, after the state made desperate requests for two weeks of at least 300 tonnes of daily supply.
Of the 247 tons of oxygen allocated, nearly 70 tons come from a plant in Bokaro, a city in eastern Jharkhand, located more than 1,750 km (1,088 miles) away. Punjab hospitals say Bokaro’s oxygen barely reaches them on time.
As of May 7, there were also deficits of 211 tons of oxygen from other plants in the country due to logistical problems, according to officials that the daily oxygen consumption of Punjab is much more than what each arrives. day in the state.
Amid logistical challenges to bring oxygen from Jharkhand, Singh urged Modi on May 10 to increase the total oxygen quota of plants in states closer to Punjab.
“Why wait for oxygen from Bokaro, 1,758 miles away, when we can get oxygen from Lahore just 50 miles away?” Aujla told Al Jazeera.
The parliamentarian suggested that the two countries can create a system of exchange where they can exchange the essential resources they need.
“At a time when cases are also on the rise in Pakistan, this resource-sharing system across the Wagah-Attari border may be useful for both countries,” he said.
“India is already receiving help from China and other Islamic countries. If he is too ashamed to receive help from his so-called enemy, we can pay Pakistan or exchange sugar or wheat in exchange.
“If we can offer vaccines in Pakistan, why don’t we take oxygen from them? Who knows, it can improve our relations with Pakistan, “he said.
Relations between the two countries have remained strained since the Indian subcontinent became independent from British rule in 1947 and split through a bloody partition to form Muslim-majority Pakistan.
The two nuclear-armed nations have fought two of their three main wars over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, which they claim in full but govern some parts, with tensions between them reaching its peak in 2019 when India goes dismiss the special status of the controlling portion of Kashmir.
However, in a rare thaw in their relations earlier this year, the two countries reaffirmed their commitment to a 2003 ceasefire agreement along their disputed border in Kashmir. This thaw was followed by letters exchanged between Modi and Khan, in which the two leaders insisted on the need for dialogue and cordial relations.
Apart from writing to Modi, Aujla had also sent several letters to the Federal Minister of Health, Harsh Vardhan. On April 29, he also addressed the Foreign Ministry headed by Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and the Speaker of Parliament, Om Birla. He said only Birla answered him.
When Al Jazeera asked him for formal comments on the matter, India’s foreign ministry denied any correspondence with the Punjab over oxygen imports from Pakistan. Vardhan and other health ministry secretaries also did not respond to inquiries emailed by Al Jazeera.
BJP spokesman Vijay Chauthaiwale said he would not comment on the matter as it was related to bilateral relations between India and Pakistan.
Aujla is worried. “The situation in Punjab is even worse than hand in mouth. A tragedy is expected, “he told Al Jazeera.