Gasping for breath: Oxygen plants in Garo Hills are turning into relics

On August 27, India reported a single-day rise of 44 fresh COVID-19 cases, according to the Ministry of Health Affairs. Active cases as of August 2023 number less than 1,500 across India. 

In Meghalaya, according to the state dashboard, there is currently just one active COVID-19 case. So, one would not be wrong to assume that the worst pandemic in recent times is well and truly behind us. For context: in May 2021, we were reporting over a few lakh cases every day. 

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Hardly anyone wears a face mask. Hand sanitisers are once again an accessory and not a necessity, and we are no longer watching swabs being pushed into our noses. And COVID-related warnings and advisories are now slowly beginning to gather dust. 

But what about the millions of rupees invested in the infrastructure to battle the public health crisis? What became of things like, say, oxygen plants, which became the most important tool for a few months in our fight against COVID-19?

Mind you, while masks and sanitisers may have become passe, it would be a mistake to put oxygen plants in the same category. Even in October 2022, a report suggested notifications and regulations that necessitate new Pressure Swing Absorption (PSA) oxygen plants for medical colleges or hospitals should be withdrawn and instead, a national oxygen grid set up. 

According to the report, the National Medical Oxygen Grid, if executed, will be a far-reaching endeavour unifying the medical oxygen supply and consumption industry for efficient management of medical oxygen supply in the country, especially during health crises, the 144-page document said.

But it seems Meghalaya, a state known for its natural beauty and not a robust public health system, did not get the memo. Take Garo Hills for example. If one were to visit the oxygen plants in Garo Hills, they look less like crucial cogs in the health infrastructure and more like relics. These units now only serve as memories of what could have been a life changer for the various hospitals in Garo Hills.

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These oxygen plants were up in six locations: Jengjal, Tura, Baghmara, Resubelpara, Ampati, Williamnagar and Resubelpara. Each cost a pretty penny: estimates range in crores. 

The Tura plant, set up in 2021 with funds received during the height of COVID-19, was meant to assist the biggest hospital in the Garo Hills region. The reality, however, is very different. “The plant in the Tura Civil Hospital is functioning. But we are running the plant using generators as electric lines aren’t enough. We tried running the plant using normal power lines, but it would trip the entire system,” informed the medical superintendent of the Tura Civil Hospital.

The only option was to change the entire set-up, which needed a new transformer. The authorities ordered a new transformer, but even after two years, it is not functional.

The TCH is procuring oxygen from either Bongaigaon in Assam or Byrnihat in Meghalaya. 

But there is more bad news. When questioned on the plant’s capacity, hospital authorities said the plant barely caters to about 20% of the oxygen requirement of the most critical hospital in Garo Hills.

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“Even at its peak, the plant will not cater to more than 20-30% of the requirement. We still have to stock our oxygen from other sources – mostly Bongaigaon in Assam. That said, the functioning of the plant in TCH would have helped to a huge extent. We need a workable power supply and sufficient manpower to keep the plant operational. We lack both,” informed the hospital authorities.

The hospital bought the transformer, but the lackadaisical attitude of the MeECL meant oxygen augmentation remains a pipe dream.

“We have no option than to run the plant for a few hours weekly lest it get out of commission. That too costs a lot of money and manpower. Further, there is a requirement for skilled manpower to run these plants as we are using people meant for emergency services to keep the plant running. Once fully functional, this can become a big issue,” informed the superintendent.

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The Jengjal plant is no different: it remains non-functional. Barring a caretaker at the Jengjal plant, indicating a plant commissioned, nothing indicates a functioning plant. 

The Williamnagar plant broke down a few months ago and the authorities here too now depend on Assam for its oxygen needs. “It also costs a lot of time as one of the few vehicles we have is used to transport the cylinders. If the plant had been up and running, this could have helped us avoid huge costs and saved on time,” informed an official from WCH.

“When we first complained about the plant not working, the contractor sent a mechanic who did not inspire confidence at all. He fumbled through things before making an excuse and leaving. We have not been able to contact them as they don’t respond to our calls. It’s frustrating as we could use a functioning oxygen plant in our hospital,” informed the WCH official, on condition of anonymity.

The situation in Baghmara, Resubelpara and Ampati Civil Hospital is the same or worse, depending on how you see it. 

“We cannot run the plant as we don’t have sufficient electricity using the existing power set up. Authorities have been informed through various letters and communication of the situation but nothing has been worked on as of yet,” said another official. 

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In the case of Baghmara, for example, a fully functional plant would have sufficed for the hospital’s needs, but the reality is different. 

“We have been writing to get the plant operational for the past 2 years, but this has gone unheeded. Currently, the plant requires a transformer for a regular supply. We get our oxygen supply from Bongaigaon or Guwahati in Assam,” informed the hospital authorities. 

For Resubelpara, where a 100-bed hospital is yet to be built, the situation is not dire as they have enough supply, though their oxygen plant, which is yet to be operational, is already facing issues. 

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“Our staff has been trained, but we don’t have electric lines to ensure non-stop supply. Using generators to run the plant is out of the question due to the huge costs involved. It would have been a boon if the plant was running,” the district medical and health officer of the North Garo Hills district. 

In a region where health infrastructure is deplorable at worst and insufficient at best, oxygen supply could have been a boon. However, this too has joined the long list of projects that promised a lot and delivered nothing. 

“What is the point if nothing will come out of it? From where we are, this infrastructure set up is amusing, to say the least, and may end up in the long list of scams perpetrated by the government on the people of the Garo Hills region,” felt a resident on condition of anonymity.

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