It is a welcome relief that the all-party meeting called by Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami reached a quick consensus in allowing the Thoothukudi-based smelting plant, which has been shut for three years, to produce badly-needed oxygen.
The signals sent out by the State’s political parties before they reached this consensus was a reflection of how frightened they were to take the right decision on their own, as a result of perceptions that it was much too “sensitive” a matter. The Tamil Nadu government said as much before a puzzled and somewhat irate Supreme Court, which wondered how anyone could be reluctant to take up Sterlite’s offer to produce and distribute free medical oxygen in a situation where Indians are gasping to their death in hospitals because of the lack of it. The Opposition didn’t cover itself in glory either. The DMK and most of its allies were almost deafeningly loud in their silence, which was totally at odds, with the statements put out strongly opposing the Centre’s decision to divert 80 MT to Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
The VCK of course has criticised the nod for the production of medical oxygen on the ground that there was no shortage in Tamil Nadu. But when people had died in other parts of the country, is it ethical to think of Tamil Nadu alone? Also, the party’s leader Thol Thirumavalavan was way out of line by tweeting that Sterlite wouldn’t be allowed to open if a thousand had to die. That Sterlite has had a long and controversial history cannot be disputed. It is also likely that the unfortunate and unforgivable shooting of 13 people in 2018 during the fierce protests against reopening the plant is fresh in people’s memories.
But it is plain as day that there is no connection between allowing an industrial unit to smelt copper and conditionally produce medical oxygen. There was a parallel issue that played out in the Supreme Court, which related to technicalities – the fact that Sterlite doesn’t have the infrastructure to produce 1,000 MT of medical grade oxygen. The company has since clarified that it was prepared to set up compression and bottling plants and increase the liquefaction of gaseous oxygen. The only issue of debate now is how long this will take. Even if it takes a few months, it is important to keep in mind that this is an offer of free supply, and no taxpayer money is being wasted on the effort. At the end of the day, a couple of truths override all other considerations. First, that people are dying. And second, that we must pull out all the stops to produce medical-grade oxygen. Any view opposing the latter has the potential to cause even more deaths in a country where some hospitals have become chambers of horror.