The Supreme Court has set up a National Task Force (NTF) to streamline oxygen allocation to states across the country, a move that comes in the midst of the second wave of the coronavirus disease that has stressed the health care sector and sent the demand for medical oxygen among Covid-19 patients soaring.
Several states, including Delhi, have complained of a crippling shortage of medical oxygen with reports of deaths due to its non-availability coming in from different parts.
“In order to ensure that the allocation and distribution of oxygen takes place on a rational and equitable basis, it is necessary to constitute a national task force of experts which would determine the method of allocation and distribution of oxygen across States/UTs,” the top court said in its May 6 order. “Smaller expert committees or sub-groups may look into issues of auditing the manner in which supplies are to be distributed and utilised in each State/UT,” it added.
The order came after a submission by solicitor general Tushar Mehta, on behalf of the Centre, on the allocation of oxygen to states. He requested the forming of an expert committee of health care professionals to facilitate a fresh assessment on oxygen allocation. In order to ensure rational and equitable distribution of oxygen, the SG submitted to the court that it was necessary “to constitute a national task force of experts which would determine the method of allocation and distribution of oxygen across States/UTs”.
The 12-member task force formed by the apex court will also review and suggest measures to ensure availability of essential drugs and medicines, and help states in adopting remedial measures to ensure preparedness for future emergencies. It will facilitate and provide response to the public on Covid-19 queries, based on scientific and specialised domain knowledge. It will be at liberty to formulate its own modalities and procedure for functioning.
The top court named a sub-group for carrying out the audit exercise for Delhi’s health infrastructure and allocation of oxygen, and said that it shall consist of Randeep Guleria, the director of All India Institute Of Medical Sciences (AIIMS); Sandeep Budhiraja of Max Healthcare; and two IAS officers not below the rank of Joint Secretary (one each from the Centre and the Delhi government).
A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah said the Union cabinet secretary will be the convenor of the national task force and may nominate an officer not below the rank of additional secretary to depute for him, when necessary. The top court said in its order passed on May 6, uploaded on Saturday, that the secretary of the Union ministry of health and family welfare will be ex-officio member of the task force.
The National Task Force will have the following members:
1. Dr Bhabatosh Biswas, Former Vice Chancellor, West Bengal University of Health Sciences, Kolkata;
2. Dr Devender Singh Rana, Chairperson, Board of Management, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi;
3. Dr Devi Prasad Shetty, Chairperson and Executive Director, Narayana Healthcare, Bengaluru;
4. Dr Gagandeep Kang, Professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu;
5. Dr JV Peter, Director, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu;
6. Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairperson and Managing Director, Medanta Hospital and Heart Institute, Gurugram;
7. Dr Rahul Pandit, Director, Critical Care Medicine and ICU, Fortis Hospital, Mulund (Mumbai, Maharashtra) and Kalyan (Maharashtra);
8. Dr Saumitra Rawat, Chairman & Head, Department of Surgical Gastroenterology and Liver Transplant, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital
9. Dr Shiv Kumar Sarin, Senior Professor and Head of Department of Hepatology, Director, Institute of Liver and Biliary Science (ILBS), Delhi;
10. Dr Zarir F Udwadia, Consultant Chest Physician, Hinduja Hospital, Breach Candy Hospital and Parsee General Hospital, Mumbai;
11. Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India (ex officio member); and
12. The Convenor of the National Task Force, who shall also be a member, will be the Cabinet Secretary to the Centre
The NTF can also call upon the following officials of the Central government for consultation and information:
1. A member of Niti Aayog to be nominated by the Vice-Chairperson;
2. Secretary, Ministry of Human Affairs;
3. Secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade;
4. Secretary, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways;
5. Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi; (vi) Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research, New Delhi;
6. Director General of Health Services; and
7. Director General, National Informatics Centre; and
8. Head, Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC).
The concerned secretaries can also nominate officers of additional/joint secretary rank to depute for them.
The top court said it expected that the leading experts in the country shall associate with the work of the task force both as members and resource persons, as this will facilitate a meeting of minds and the formulation of scientific strategies to deal with an unprecedented human crisis. “The establishment of this Task Force will enable the decision makers to have inputs which go beyond finding ad-hoc solutions to the present problems. The likely future course of the pandemic must be taken into contemplation at the present time, the bench said.
It added that this will ensure that projected future requirements can be scientifically mapped in the present and may be modulated in the light of experiences gained.
The establishment of the task force will provide the Union Government with inputs and strategies for meeting the challenges of the pandemic on a transparent and professional basis, in the present and in future, the bench said. The top court also made 12-point terms of reference, which include assessing and making recommendations for the entire country based on the need for and the availability and distribution of medical oxygen, and to facilitate auditing by sub-groups within each State and UT.
It said the sub-groups will do audit to determine whether the supplies allocated by the Centre reach the concerned State/UT, the efficacy of the distribution networks in distributing supplies meant for hospitals, health care institutions and others and whether the available stocks are being distributed on the basis of an effective, transparent and professional mechanism.
The top court said the task force will constitute sub-groups/committees of each state/UT for auditing and it will involve an officer of the state/UT government not below the rank of secretary to the state government, an officer of the Centre not below the rank of additional/joint secretary, and two medical doctors in the state/UT concerned, including at least one with administrative experience of managing the medical facilities of a hospital and a representative from the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO).
The bench clarified that the purpose of the audit is not to scrutinise the decisions made in good faith by doctors while treating their patients but 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 utilisation of oxygen, the bench said on audit by sub-groups.
It said the Centre shall continue with the present practice of making allocations of oxygen until the task force has submitted its recommendations in regard to proposed modalities. The Union government shall on receipt of the recommendations of the task force take an appropriate decision in regard to the allocation of oxygen and on all other recommendations.
The bench said that the task force shall also submit its recommendations from time to time to the court and requested it to commence work immediately, taking up the pressing issue of determining the modalities for oxygen expeditiously within a week. The tenure of the task force shall be six months initially, it said.