IDIOCY ISN’T ANYONE’S MONOPOLY; simple Covid’iots have been beaten at the game by Coronil poppers, who are innocents when measured against anti-vaccinists who, in turn, dwarf before GauMootra/Gobar Therapy advocates, but Punjab has produced a new variety — the Pakistani Oxygen seekers. All because Lahore is 50 kms away!
Resist the temptation of hazarding a guess as to whether an undue proclivity towards excessive sitaphal or cheeku consumption prompts such behaviour or some particularly peculiar royal drug is to blame, but the fact is that when Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh floated the hare-brained idea of importing Oxygen from Pakistani Punjab, the line up of those hailing the barmy idiocy also included elements otherwise known for reasonable levels of sanity.
One after the other media platforms found Amarinder Singh’s idea feasible, many even laudable, and a few actually applauded from the sidelines. Respectable mastheads fell for the idiocy, lock stock and quill, and some political pundits even called it a masterstroke. Did they even inhale enough oxygen, or were they on high-flow?
A few thought that all you need to find the best way to access Oxygen was a measuring tape: Panipat, from where Punjab picks up some of its quota, is 350 kms away, while Lahore is just 50 kms. Presto, Jim Hacker had found a solution sitting in Amritsar.
Why try to find out more? To go back to Humphrey Appleby, “they have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.”
So, in a manner most “dignified,” for want of a more polite term, even Al Jazeera jumped on to the bandwagon. “Punjab gasps as India’s Modi refuses to seek oxygen from Pakistan,” shrieked the Al Jazeera’s headline. Lest you miss the politics being induced by the international channel and its bright journalist, they made it explicit even for readers on the bovine scale – “Repeated requests by Punjab leaders to import life-saving gas from ‘enemy nation’ go unheeded by federal government.”
According to umpteen ‘senior’ journalists, ‘respected’ newspapers, shrieky television channels and, lo and behold, Al Jazeera, “the Punjab government approached Prime Minister Narendra Modi to facilitate an “oxygen corridor” with Pakistan, India’s archrival neighbour which shares a 550km-long (342 miles) border with the northwestern state.”
Once you quote BBC or Al Jazeera to a ‘globalised’ Punjabi, little further evidence is required. Our search for truth stops at the foreign media logo.
We were informed that “Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government refused to seek any help from its “enemy nation”.” Al Jazeera sources were as impeccable as our MP from Amritsar, Gurjit Singh Aujla, who being not far from Lahore (“barely 50km (31 miles) away from Amritsar,” as per Al Jazeera), must had clearly seen stocks of Oxygen in, what was that?, ah! the “enemy nation” — Pakistan.
Aujla, incidentally, actually released a statement on May 4 to inform that Modi’s Centre had rejected his proposal to allow Punjab’s local industry body to import oxygen from Pakistan through the Wagah-Attari border.
Put together the tens of newspapers, dozen odd TV channels, couple of score of ‘senior’ journalists and the awe-inducing Al Jazeera, and you get the basic facts:
1. Punjab needs Oxygen.
2. Lahore is 50 kms away.
3. Why don’t we get Oxygen from Pakistan?
4. We can’t – obviously – because Hindu nationalist BJP of Modi isn’t allowing it.
What more was there to find out?
Except, of course, one little incidental detail – how much Oxygen Pakistan has to spare, how much is Pakistan’s total Oxygen production, how much is its Oxygen production capacity, and how is the Oxygen supply situation in Pakistan’s or Lahore’s hospitals for that matter.
Except that Pakistan does not have surplus oxygen. It never had. In fact, Pakistan does not have Oxygen even for its own Covid related needs. It never had enough even before Covid-19 sent its calling card from Wuhan. And it does not have the resources to marshal plans to set up Oxygen plants overnight.
Of course, Pakistan, the world’s only nation formed in the name of Islam, knows how to pray. All that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan could do was to pray for his Indian brethren. (Feminists, hold your horses and inhale some O2, please, at the undergirded patriarchy here. We are talking Pak lingo!) So he tweeted: “Our prayers for a speedy recovery go to all those suffering from the pandemic in our neighbourhood & the world.”
It is not clear if he made a special mention of our Oxygen requirement or had heard Amarinder Singh’s beseeching calls to Modi to get some of the gas from Lahore, but that is a matter between Khan and Allah.
The two haven’t been having the best of relationship, as is clear from the latest muscle-flexing by the Jahangir Tareen group or a reinvigorated Shehbaz Sharif, but lest Minister Jaishankar objects to my comments about another country’s internal affairs, let us stick to Oxygen.
Anyone following the deliberations and daily briefings of Pakistan’s NCOC – National Command and Operation Centre – headed by Pakistan’s Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar, knows how ill equipped the neighbouring country is in dealing with any serious wave of virus.
On April 29 this year, Asad Umar was worried about the Oxygen situation in Pakistan when the total number of Pakistanis on Oxygen were just 5,360, almost half the number of patients on Oxygen just in Amarinder Singh’s Punjab.
During the very week when Amarinder Singh was badgering Modi to let him get some Oxygen from Pakistan, Asad Umar was sitting in Lahore, worried about what his country will do if it needed even a fraction more of Oxygen.
“Continuing to build capacity …it was decided to import 6,000 tonnes of oxygen, 5,000 cylinders and 20 cryogenic tanks,” he told reporters on April 29 in Islamabad, his remarks reported widely in the media. A day before, he had told Pakistan that Imran Khan’s government had imported 19,200 oxygen cylinders in 2020 to augment gas distribution.
Even at the peak of the first wave of Covid-19, Pakistan’s Oxygen production, capacity, distribution, availability and hospital supply chain position was, to put it politely, lest Jaishankar starts tweeting at me, pathetic!
The maximum oxygen production operational capacity that Pakistan could brag about in 2020 was 487 metric tonnes per day. It has now been raised to 798 metric tonnes, as per federal government’s claims. The actual production, of course, remains a little less, currently pegged at 725 tonnes as per government’s and NCOC’s own published claims. India, on the same day, was producing about 7,500 metric tonnes every day.
Just to give you an idea, India is currently planning to import 50,000 tonnes of medical oxygen and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has been directed to float a tender for the purpose. Maharashtra alone produces 1,250 plus metric tonnes of Oxygen, three times more than what all of Pakistan produced last year, and Maharashtra is well on its way to augment its capacity much more.
Pakistan has virtually escaped the dance of death that coronavirus has been staging in India. As I write this, its current positivity rate is 8.2%, Lahore’s city hospitals have only 355 patients on high-flow oxygen and 89 had died in the last 24 hours as per reports on the morning of May 20, 2021.
Lahore, which, you know, is just 50 kms, from Amritsar, reported just 399 cases, and others much less (Rawalpindi 193, Sargodha 115, Faisalabad 90 and Multan 67), but even then, warnings about Oxygen were being sounded everywhere.
Pakistani Punjab’s health secretary Nabeel Awan said that in Lahore’s government hospitals, 186 out of 272 ventilators were occupied even with these low numbers.
On the very day Amarinder Singh wanted Lahore’s Oxygen, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special assistant on national health services, Dr Faisal Sultan was on Samaa TV of Pakistan, telling his country that “Pakistan is consuming at least 90% of oxygen it is producing.” Amarinder Singh seriously wanted a share in that pie? (See video)
“We need to take it very seriously,” Sultan said, but Maharajas hardly take such stuff seriously, at least not as seriously as they worry about custard apples or mudapples.
Sunil Jakhar, Punjab Congress chief and otherwise a sane head, also fell for the bait, complaining that Modi government’s Home and Foreign Office has blocked Punjab’s bright idea of inhaling Pakistani oxygen.
Pakistan, of course, has been taking it seriously. Resisting much pressure from the industry, the NCOC has ordered shutting down of the scrap industry in Lahore’s Misri Shah loha mandi, named after the great sufi saint and king of kaafi poetry, so that oxygen could be diverted to the healthcare sector instead.
Pakistan has five oxygen producers — Multan Chemicals Limited, POL, Ghani Gasses, Shareef Gasses Limited and Sultan Gasses Limited — for medical as well as industrial sector, though currently, the entire stock is being supplied to only health facilities in the country.
Multan Chemicals Limited’s Muneeb Khan Babar was quoted in Pakistani media as saying that the oxygen producing sector was ‘under stress’ at the moment due to surge in demand. On top of that, Pakistan has serious electricity supply issues that can thwart best of oxygen production plans.
Since last month, Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa state has put strict curbs on Oxygen usage and now medical oxygen can only be administered to Covid-19 patients.
As for Punjab, the one whose capital is Lahore (Remember? 50 kms away?), someone who was also a chief minister of Punjab and arguably knows the state better than the chief minister of our Punjab, was warning the Usman Buzdar government as well as Imran Khan’s about state of Oxygen availability.
Not paying much heed to Amarinder Singh harking about getting Pakistan’s Oxygen from Lahore, PML-N President and Leader of the Opposition in National Assembly (Pakistan’s Parliament), Shehbaz Sharif was that very week expressing alarm and concern over the oxygen shortage in his country amid rising cases of Covid-19.
“All stakeholders must formulate a strategy on emergent grounds to save the country from a crisis like the one prevailing in India,” Shehbaz said in a statement on April 26, 2021.
Some of the top Pakistani or Pakistan-origin researchers and policy wonks, in an article written in collaboration with Dawn and Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan, advised Islamabad to start sourcing and procuring oxygen cylinders and concentrators and place advance orders for mid-June. You think they should have asked Imran Khan to consider Amarinder Singh’s demand for some of that gas?
Of course, their advice happened to coincide with Amarinder Singh’s bright idea of getting Oxygen from Pakistan, and its whole hearted support by Punjab based media, duly validated by Al Jazeera’s equally scintillating reporting about – let me recall – “Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government” refusing to seek any help from its “enemy nation”.
And all this while, you thought Amarinder Singh, the fairly well-educated chief minister of Punjab, was seriously interested in making sure that you are able to breathe and was finding innovative ways of arranging Oxygen from whereever he could.
Do you even for a moment think he was not aware, or was not made aware, about the availability of Oxygen in Pakistan? What do you think was going on? ‘Oxygen from Pakistan’ idea made headlines for more than a week, keeping you engaged and pushing away other headlines, like the number of corpses being churned out by the Amarinder Singh government-run hospital in his own constituency.
As for the factual veracity of how far Lahore is from Amritsar when compared to Panipat, I stand with my ‘senior’ journalists brethren, though sometimes I have to take a deep breath before I do something like that. Just to ensure adequate uptake of locally available Oxygen, not imported from Lahore, 50 kms away.
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