In a swift and surprise move the Supreme Court has constituted a 12-member National Task Force to assess and make recommendations for the entire country based on the need for, availability, and distribution of medical oxygen.
Legal experts point the Supreme Court move has communicated a hard stance to the Modi led centre government over mismanagement for oxygen crisis
The order came as a fallout of the tussle between the Centre and the Delhi government over the supply of oxygen to Delhi.
Delhi has been demanding 700MT of oxygen and the Centre has been dragging its feet on it.
The task force will formulate and devise the methodology for the allocation of medical oxygen to the states and union territories on a scientific, rational and equitable basis;
make recommendations on augmenting the available supplies of oxygen based on present and projected demands likely during the pandemic and make recommendations for the periodical review and revision of allocations based on the stage and impact of the pandemic.
A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah passed the order to this effect.
The task force constituted by the Supreme Court will comprise-
Dr. Bhabatosh Biswas, Former Vice-Chancellor, West Bengal University of Health Sciences, Kolkata;
Dr. Devender Singh Rana, Chairperson, Board of Management, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi;
Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty, Chairperson and Executive Director, Narayana Healthcare, Bengaluru;
Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu;
Dr. JV Peter, Director, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu;
Dr. Naresh Trehan, Chairperson and Managing Director, Medanta Hospital and Heart Institute, Gurugram;
Dr. Rahul Pandit, Director, Critical Care Medicine and ICU, Fortis Hospital, Mulund (Mumbai, Maharashtra) and Kalyan (Maharashtra);
Dr Saumitra Rawat, Chairman & Head, Department of Surgical Gastroenterology and Liver Transplant, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi;
Dr. Shiv Kumar Sarin, Senior Professor and Head of Department of Hepatology, Director, Institute of Liver and Biliary Science (ILBS), Delhi;
Dr. Zarir F Udwadia, Consultant Chest Physician, Hinduja Hospital, Breach Candy Hospital and Parsee General Hospital, Mumbai;
Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India (ex officio member); and
The Convenor of the National Task Force, who shall also be a member, will be the Cabinet Secretary to the Union Government.
The Cabinet Secretary may nominate an officer not below the rank of Additional Secretary to depute for him, when necessary.
The terms of reference of the National Task Force as set by the apex court would be to Assess and make recommendations for the entire country based on the need for, availability and distribution of medical oxygen;
Formulate and devise the methodology for the allocation of medical oxygen to the States and UTs on a scientific, rational and equitable basis;
Make recommendations on augmenting the available supplies of oxygen based on present and projected demands likely during the pandemic;
Make recommendations for the periodical review and revision of allocations based on the stage and impact of the pandemic;
Review and suggest measures necessary for ensuring the availability of essential drugs and medicines;
Plan and adopt remedial measures for ensuring preparedness to meet present and future emergencies which may arise during the pandemic;
Facilitate the use of technology to ensure that the available manpower is optimised for implementing innovative solutions particularly in order to provide an outreach of expert medical care to rural areas;
Suggest measures to augment the availability of trained doctors, nurses and para-medical staff including by the creation of suitable incentives;
Promote evidence-based research to enhance effective responses to the pandemic;
Facilitate the sharing of best practices across the nation to promote knowledge about the management of the pandemic and treatment of cases; and
Generally, to make recommendations in regard to other issues of pressing national concern to find effective responses to the pandemic.
Besides, the task force would facilitate audits by sub-groups within each State and UT inter alia for determining:
whether the supplies allocated by the Union Government reach the concerned State/UT;
the efficacy of the distribution networks in distributing supplies meant for hospitals, health care institutions and others;
whether the available stocks are being distributed on the basis of an effective, transparent and professional mechanism; and accountability in regard to the utilisation of the supplies of oxygen allocated to each State/UT;
The court clarified for the purpose of the audit, the Task Force would constitute sub-groups/committees for each State/UT comprising:
An officer of the State/UT Government not below the rank of Secretary to the State Government;
An officer of the Union Government not below the rank of Additional/Joint Secretary;
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).
In so far as Delhi is concerned, the top court said the audit sub-group would consist of:
(i) Dr. Randeep Guleria, Professor and Head, Department of Pulmonary Medicine and Sleep, AIIMS;
(ii) Dr. Sandeep Budhiraja, Clinical Director & Director – Internal Medicine, Max Healthcare; and
(iii) An IAS officer, each from the Union Government and GNCTD, not below the rank of Joint Secretary.
In addition, the Task Force may constitute one or more sub-groups on specialised areas or regions for assisting it, before finalizing its recommendations.
“The Task Force may consider it appropriate to co-opt or seek the assistance of other experts within or outside government to facilitate its working, including in the following areas:
(i) Infectious disease modelling;
(ii) Critical care;
(iii) Clinical virology/Immunology; and
(iv) Epidemiology/Public health”, the court order said.
The court emphasised that the purpose of conducting audits was to ensure accountability in respect of the supplies of oxygen provided to every state and union territory.
“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 utilization of oxygen.
The purpose of the audit is not to scrutinise the decisions made in good faith by doctors while treating their patients”, the court said.
The court made it clear that the Centre would have to provide 700MT oxygen to Delhi daily until further orders.
The court reasoned that a task force at a national level will facilitate a public health response to the pandemic based on scientific and specialised domain knowledge.
“We expect that the leading experts in the country shall associate with the work of the Task Force both as members and resource persons.
This will facilitate a meeting of minds and the formulation of scientific strategies to deal with an unprecedented human crisis”, the court said.
It added the establishment of this Task Force will enable the decision-makers to have inputs that go beyond finding ad-hoc solutions to the present problems.