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Judges in India say it is the height of greed for steel plants to operate as COVID oxygen supplies in hospitals dwindle

INSIDER logo INSIDER 22/04/2021 cteh@businessinsider.com (Cheryl Teh)
A patient wears an oxygen mask inside an ambulance waiting to enter a COVID-19 hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad, India, April 21, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave © Provided by INSIDER A patient wears an oxygen mask inside an ambulance waiting to enter a COVID-19 hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad, India, April 21, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave
  • In an emergency hearing, judges expressed outrage that steel plants were allowed to remain open and use industrial oxygen.
  • COVID patients in India's hospitals are dying as oxygen supplies at COVID care facilities run low.
  • Indian steelmakers applied to continue operating even as local governments struggled to maintain a supply of oxygen to hospitals.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Two judges at the Delhi High Court expressed outrage during an emergency hearing, calling it the "height of greed" for steel plants to be allowed to operate - even as COVID patients begin to die and hospitals remain oxygen-starved, operating on critically low supplies.

The India Tribune reported that High Court judges Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said they were "shocked and dismayed" that hospitals were running out of oxygen but steel plants continued to operate. Most steel-making plants in India require industrial oxygen to produce steel in a process called basic oxygen steel-making - where pure oxygen is blown into a molten pot of blast-furnace iron and scrap.

The emergency hearing resulted in a legal directive for oxygen to be provided by "whatever means" to the Indian capital's hospitals, which are currently facing a serious oxygen scarcity. The judges were considering an emergency lawsuit filed by the Balaji Medical and Research Centre, which asked for all supplies of oxygen to be diverted to medical centers to ensure that lives can be saved.

The High Court issued a strongly worded response, observing that it "seems human life is not important for the state."

"You are not exploring all avenues to augment oxygen supply - beg, borrow or steal," said the court in its decision, warning of India's government officials of the "gravity" of the emergency that Delhi faces if oxygen supplies to hospitals run dry.

The India Times reported that the judges encouraged steel and petrochemical plants to halt operations and follow the example of multinational steel-making company Tata Steel in supplying much-needed oxygen supplies to hospitals. Local media outlet DNA India reported on Tuesday that Tata Steel said it would supply 200 to 300 tons of medical oxygen every day to various state governments and hospitals.

"Medical oxygen is critical to the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Responding to the national urgency, we're supplying 200 to 300 tons of liquid medical oxygen daily to various state governments & hospitals. We are in this fight together and will surely win it," Tata said in a tweet.

The country's largest steel-making company SAIL also said it was supplying 33,300 tons of oxygen for the treatment of COVID patients - but not all companies in the industry have fallen in line.

In March, a coalition of the country's steelmakers applied to the government to allow them to continue to run operations despite India's nationwide lockdown, asking to be classified as essential services.

In the meantime, India continues to struggle with its critically low oxygen supplies. Over 20 COVID patients in the western Indian city of Nashik died on Wednesday when oxygen in their ventilators ran out amid the nationwide shortage of the gas. The state's health minister, Rajesh Tope, said the oxygen supply at the hospital in question had run out because the tanker refilling it suffered a leak.

Out of desperation, some families of COVID patients have also started stealing oxygen cylinders from hospitals. It was reported that oxygen cylinders had been taken from a storeroom at the Damoh district hospital in Madhya Pradesh.

India reported 314,835 new coronavirus cases on Thursday - the highest daily total of any country during the pandemic. This brings the number of COVID cases in the country to close to 16 million recorded cases.

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