Top court orders India's government to present oxygen plan

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Funeral pyres of twenty-five COVID-19 victims burn at an open crematorium set up at a granite quarry on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

NEW DELHI – India's government, facing calls for a strict lockdown to slow a devastating surge in coronavirus infections, was ordered by the Supreme Court on Wednesday to submit a plan to meet New Delhi hospitals’ oxygen needs within a day.

The court decided against immediately punishing officials for failing to end a 2-week-old erratic supply of oxygen to overstretched hospitals.

“Ultimately putting officers in jail or hauling officers for contempt will not bring oxygen. Please tell us steps to solve this,” Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud said.

The court stayed a contempt notice earlier issued to the government by the New Delhi High Court for defying its order to supply adequate oxygen to more than 40 New Delhi hospitals. The government officials found guilty could have faced six months in prison and a fine.

With 382,315 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, India's tally has risen to more than 20.6 million since the pandemic began. The Health Ministry also reported 3,780 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 226,188. Experts believe both figures are an undercount.

On Tuesday, the New Delhi High Court court, which had summoned two Home Ministry officials for a hearing Wednesday, said the grim reality is that hospitals are reducing the number of beds and asking patients to move elsewhere. The court is hearing petitions filed by several hospitals and nursing homes struggling with irregular oxygen supplies.

“You can put your head in the sand like an ostrich, we will not. We are not going to take no for an answer,” Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said Tuesday.

Raghav Chaddha, a spokesman for the Aam Aadmi Party governing New Delhi, said hospitals were getting only 40% of their 700 metric ton (772 U.S. ton) daily needs through the federal government, and the local government was arranging additional supplies to meet the shortfall and setting up new oxygen plants.