On 6 May, 28-year-old Mudasir Ahmad ran from pillar to post and posted multiple SOS messages on his social media handles. The Srinagar resident was desperate to find an oxygen cylinder for his ailing mother who like thousands of others had been hit by Covid-19 and needed supplementary oxygen for her to recover.
She was under home isolation and her oxygen level had dipped, with beds in Kashmir hospital almost booked, he tried a tested and tried way of getting the oxygen concentrator from one of many NGOs that have done stellar work against Covid in the valley.
Ahmed said the NGOs were as helpless as him. “All of them said they had no oxygen,” Ahmed said breathing heavily. The reason for NGOs in Kashmir to not be able to provide oxygen to Ahmed was the latest government diktat.
The Srinagar administration in a bizarre order directed oxygen manufacturing units in the city to stop providing refills to private persons, societies and non-governmental organisations in a bid “to prevent black marketing of medical oxygen”.
On Thursday, Srinagar District Magistrate Mohammad Aijaz, in an order, stated that several reports of black marketing of medical oxygen had reached his office, adding that this was interfering with the proper management of medical oxygen.
The order said that in view of the situation, the district magistrate was declaring “that all oxygen manufacturing units within the jurisdiction of district Srinagar shall supply oxygen refills only to designated hospitals/clinics and will stop supply to any private society/NGO with immediate effect”.
“Supply to private persons/societies/NGOs (other than private hospitals) shall be made only with prior approval of district magistrate Srinagar,” the order added.
It further stated that any private body intending to avail oxygen supply or refill facility should register their “genuine demand” with a nodal officer of the Covid-19 war room established by the administration.
The move as expected drew severe criticism from many residents and politicians, who have expressed concerns that banning NGOs and others from accessing medical oxygen will end up making Covid-19 patients more vulnerable to adverse medical conditions.
Among those affected was Ahmed. “The order was inhumane, we all know how fragile our health system is. If not for NGOs, we would have faced the worst situation last year. Even today amidst the devastating second wave it is them who is helping hundreds,” he said.
During Ahmed’s ordeal to find an oxygen cylinder for her mother, scenes of other parts of the country where hundreds have died due to lack of oxygen flashed into his mind, “It was a devastating feeling to just think of the fate of my mother if I didn’t find oxygen,” he recalled.
The outcry against the order reached social media where prominent personalities as well as locals lashed out at the administration.
Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir while taking to his Twitter handle said, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Stopping the hoarding/black marketing of oxygen cylinders is a laudable goal. Preventing NGOs or making it tougher for them to help people get cylinders is dangerous. NGOs were working when the government was still in deep slumber.”
NGOs involved in relief work in Kashmir also expressed their concern. Mohammed Afaaq Sayeed, who heads the oxygen unit of Socio Reforms Organisation (SRO), said providing oxygen is a commitment and not a one-time affair.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have helped somewhere between 8,000-9,000 people access oxygen. At any given time, between 350-400 people need oxygen and not once but continuously. It is a commitment,” Sayeed told a national news portal The Print. “Besides Covid-19 patients we have dozens of others who also depend on medical oxygen. Does the government comprehend what will happen if this well-established cycle is broken.”
Sayeed acknowledged that black marketing of oxygen was a reality not only in Kashmir but across India but added that a blanket ban on NGOs to access oxygen was not the right way to go about the issue. “Instead, the government should form a squad that can deal with and takes action against those engaging in these malpractices. You can’t punish an entire population,” he said.
In its defence District Magistrate Aijaz tweeted: “To provide fair & equal access to oxygen supply to the neediest patients, things have been streamlined. Scuttlebutt has it as if somebody is being prevented. Not at all. In fact, proper mechanisms in place will ensure regular supply in a smooth manner. Regards.”
However, the defence was not received well by those who needed oxygen, “I have been trying to find an oxygen concentrator from 1.00 in the morning. My voice feels like choking now, there’s an actual apocalypse on us. NGOs, bait ups maals, masjid committees all are helpless like us. I got a call back finally at 9.30 about availability of one at Sangeen darwaza but they couldn’t hand me before I could produce them documents from DC, And probably DC and his team are sleeping,” A social media user posted on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Ahmed was who used contacts of his friends was lucky to find a cylinder, however, it was not clear if his mother would survive or not, “A lot of time was wasted finding the cylinder, I am not sure if she will recover, if she does not the murder will be on government’s head,” An aghast Ahmed told The Kashmir Walla.
The oxygen gag is among the slew of orders that the government has issued in Jammu and Kashmir that have been criticised by the residents. Earlier this month the government ordered health care officials to refrain from talking to the media. The move was seen as a way to scuttle information in the region that has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of covid cases and deaths. It was also a reminder of the state of freedom of expression and accountability in the conflict-ridden region.
On 7 May, SRO tweeted that the matter had been resolved for the time being, but the agony and anxiety it created will always give sleepless nights to those who were affected.