Amritsar, India – Amid alarming medical oxygen shortages, the Punjab government turned to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to facilitate Pakistan’s “oxygen corridor,” a neighbor of northwest India, which shares a 550-kilometer (342-mile) border with the northwestern state.
At least eight requests have been made by Punjab’s chief minister Amarinder Singh and other state politicians to ask Modi to get Modi oxygen from Pakistan when the city of Lahore is just 50km from Amritsar.
The demand for oxygen from Pakistan came on April 25 when Imran Khan, the country’s prime minister, offered support to India. Pakistan’s renowned charity Edhi was also healed as a volunteer to send medical assistance among the country’s COVID-19 cases.
However, the Hindu nationalist government of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) refused to ask for help from its “enemy nation” amid the second deadly wave of coronavirus that killed thousands of people every day.
“This denial is proving deadly for Punjabi patients who do not know what their last breath will be,” Amritsar parliamentarian Gurjit Singh Aujla told Al Jazeera.
Aujla was the first to write to Modi on April 26 because he was geographically close to Pakistan looking for a special oxygen corridor. When he had no news of the Prime Minister, he wrote again on 27 April, after which he wrote further letters on 2 May and 5 May.
Meanwhile, Singh also released the document on May 4, saying the center had refused to import oxygen from Pakistan’s local industrial body from Pakistan via the Wagah-Attari border near Amritsar.
Although more than 10 days have passed since the center denied it, Punjab’s oxygen supply chain is still unbroken.
Last week, at least three hospitals in Amritsar gave up SOS calls, saying their oxygen buffer had run out. The local administration organized gas to save the residence from a nearby neighborhood.
A government official in the face of the crisis, asking for anonymity, said he had lost the number of SOS messages released by hospitals in recent days. “Every day, within a few hours, some hospitals make an SOS call,” he told Al Jazeera.
Of the 3,003 coronavirus patients diagnosed in Punjab on 13 April, up from 6,947 on 17 May, there has been more than a double increase in infections in the state in a month.
As of Monday, there were 73,616 active cases in Punjab, and they are likely to cross 100,000 next week.
State government data show that at least 25-30% of these active cases require regular oxygen support. The Indian Ministry of Health has estimated that severe COVID-19 patients need 10-60 liters of oxygen per minute.
On April 24, six patients lost their lives after the facilities at the Neelkanth hospital in Amritsar were depleted of oxygen, Sunil Devgan told Al Jazeera, the hospital’s chief executive.
“On April 23, our hospital had worrying oxygen. From being 20 cylinders a day, our consumption rose to 100 cylinders as a result of the pandemic. We continued to lose patients almost every half hour on the night of April 23, ”he said.
Of the six people killed at the hospital that night due to a lack of oxygen, five were receiving COVID-19 treatment.
“Despite numerous SOS calls, no one came to our aid. Even now, after so many days, we struggle to get oxygen on time. Following the instructions of the Punjab administration, we do not accept COVID-19 seriously ill patients now, ”Devgan said.
On April 30, the daily consumption of oxygen in Punjab was 203.8 tons (MT). On May 7, it reached 250.6 MT, increasing by almost 50 MT in a week. On May 17, he jumped to 304 MT.
However, the central government increased the oxygen quota in Punjab to 247 MT on May 11, after the state gave up for two weeks after making requests to get a supply of at least 300 MT.
Nearly 70 MT of the allocated 247 MT of oxygen is extracted from a Bokaro plant, more than 1,750 km from the city in the eastern state of Jharkhand. Punjab hospitals say Bokaro’s oxygen is barely arriving on time.
On May 7, 211 MT of oxygen was missing from other plants in the country due to logistical problems, officials said Punjab’s daily oxygen needs are much higher than those that reach the state every day.
Among the logistical challenges of getting oxygen from Jharkhand, Singh again on May 10 asked Modi to increase the total oxygen quota for plants in states closer to Punjab.
“Why are we waiting for 1,758 miles of oxygen in Bokaro when we can get oxygen just 50 miles from Lahore?” Aujla told Al Jazeera.
The parliamentarian suggested that the two countries could create an exchange system to exchange the essential resources they need.
“At a time when Pakistan’s cases are also escalating, this system of sharing resources across the Wagah-Attari border could be used for both countries,” he said.
“India is already receiving aid from China and other Islamic countries. If it is too embarrassing to take help from the so-called enemy, then we can pay Pakistan or exchange it for sugar or wheat.
“If we can vaccinate Pakistan, why don’t we deprive it of oxygen? Who knows if we can improve our relations with Pakistan, ”he said.
Relations between the two countries have remained strained since the Indian subcontinent gained independence from the British in 1947 and it was divided through a bloody division to form a Muslim-majority Pakistan.
The two heavily armed nations have fought two of their three major wars over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, claiming it entirely but governing some parts of it, with tensions between them culminating in 2019 when India suspended its special status. part of Kashmir that controls it.
However, in a strange thaw in relations earlier this year, the two countries reaffirmed their commitment to the 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Kashmir conflict border. After this thaw came letters exchanged between Modi and Khan, and the two leaders stressed the need for dialogue and polite relations.
In addition to writing to Modi, Aujla has sent several letters to Federal Health Minister Harsh Vardhan. On April 29, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar headed the Foreign Ministry and parliamentary speaker Om Birla also approached. Birla said he only answered.
When Al Jazeera asked for formal comments on the matter, the Indian Foreign Ministry denied that there was any correspondence with Punjab about the import of oxygen from Pakistan. Vardhan and other health ministry secretaries also did not respond to email inquiries sent by Al Jazeera.
BJP spokesman Vijay Chauthaiwale has said he will not comment on the issue as it is linked to bilateral relations between India and Pakistan.
Aujla is worried. “The situation in Punjab is even worse than word of mouth. The tragedy will happen, ”he told Al Jazeera.