Siddharth Jain
Siddharth Jain

‘Hope we never have to see it again’: INOX Air Products chief on oxygen crisis

In an interview with TNM, Siddharth Jain, who has got the moniker of ‘Oxygen Man’, says that state governments have now reached out to bolster their oxygen storage capacity.

One of the defining concerns at the peak of the second wave in India was the lack of oxygen in many locations, or hospitals receiving them in the nick of time. High-flow oxygen was a necessity, and the role of one of India’s largest oxygen producers INOX Air Products became crucial. During the second wave, INOX supplied around 2,700 tonnes per day of oxygen during the peak. According to INOX AP, it supplied more than 4 lakh tonnes of liquid medical oxygen between April 2020 and April 2021, and 60,000 tonnes was in April 2021 alone. However, with India now significantly fewer cases than it did during the peak of the second wave, it is now time to take stock.

Speaking to TNM, INOX AP Executive Director Siddharth Jain said that prior to the pandemic, India’s medical oxygen demand was 700 tonnes a day, with a nameplate capacity of 7,000 tonnes and manufacturing of around 6,000 tonnes. Jain says that during the peak of the first wave, India had a demand of about 3,000 tonnes and going by even that marker, the industry analysed the same and believed it was prepared for a second wave, as the production capacity was more than double that of what the first wave required.

“We manufactured 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes of product. In peak one, it required only 3,000. We believed we were good. Nobody expected this in such a short period of time,” he says, looking back on the peak of the second wave. By the peak of the second wave, Siddharth says, India’s requirement was at 9,000 tonnes. “For a country to increase its oxygen production by 30%, in one month, is unprecedented,” he says. He says that a lot of oxygen manufacturers ramped up capacity at the time. 

“This additional 2,000 tonnes a day that the country produced has saved millions of people. It's difficult to put that into numbers, but we would have been in a very different place today,” he adds.

Stating that oxygen requirements mimic the COVID wave, Jain says that the crunch was primarily between April 20 and May 20. In May, when the second wave hit its peak, Siddharth said it was “the hardest time we have faced in our industry in history, and I hope we never have to see it again.”

“Oxygen is manufactured only in 70 locations across India but the consumption of oxygen happens in over 7000 places across India,” he says, stating that INOX Air supplies to 26 states, and produces in 16.

More than the production of oxygen, Siddharth says that the supplying of oxygen was a major hurdle because in some cases, oxygen was being transported over 1,500 kilometres one way.

During the second wave, India diverted industrial oxygen for medical use, impacting manufacturing firms which require oxygen. Siddharth says that while previously 85% of oxygen produced was going to firms, the industries that were previously shut that were consuming oxygen are now opening up.

“Industrial oxygen demand is back in full force, and they are just waiting on the sidelines waiting for us to start giving them products, which we have,” he says. He adds that the Empowered Group 2 (EG2), which was set up by the Union government to manage the supply of medical oxygen, has now allowed the company to sell a larger percentage of production back to industries in areas where the volume of cases has reduced.

State governments, too, he said, have reached out to bolster their oxygen storage capacities. This includes locations such as Delhi, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu which are looking to put up strategic storage reserves in those states. Private hospitals have also reached out to increase storage, he added. 

Siddharth adds that consumption of oxygen continues to be high in all southern states, but in most parts of the country, it's down by roughly 70% from what it was during the peak. 

“You know, you can receive your vaccine a few months later, but you can't get oxygen a minute late,” he says, stating that there were only 1,200 oxygen trucks in India to transport oxygen, and had to fulfill 12 times that demand in a month. 

He added that hospitals during the pandemic were consuming 10-15 times what they would have pre-pandemic, but the receiving infrastructure was exactly the same. 

“So if it has a tank of, for example 2,000 liters, it was being filled once in three days pre-pandemic. During the pandemic, it was getting filled every four hours. So maybe now instead of a 2000 litre tank, it should put up a 5000 litre tank so there’s more buffer storage,” he adds.  

INOX Air Products is investing Rs 2,000 crore to set up eight more oxygen plants in the country, which it expects to have ready by end of FY23. 

“We are increasing our medical oxygen manufacturing capacity by 50%. We're also going to be investing in a large number of transportation tankers, which was one of the biggest hurdles that we had in wave two. We're also going to be investing in increasing the storage at the end location of the hospital,” he said. 

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