Delhi govt reconstitutes Covid deaths panel

Updated on Nov 20, 2021 01:54 AM IST

The committee, which was initially constituted on May 27, never took off as the Delhi lieutenant governor did not approve it.

Exhausted workers, who bring dead bodies for cremation, sit on the rear step of an ambulance inside a crematorium in New Delhi.(AP File Photo | Representational image)
Exhausted workers, who bring dead bodies for cremation, sit on the rear step of an ambulance inside a crematorium in New Delhi.(AP File Photo | Representational image)
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

The Delhi government has re-constituted the six-member panel tasked with investigating deaths due to shortage of oxygen during the second wave of the Covid pandemic, and award compensation up to 5 lakh, pursuant to a Delhi high court order in September that overruled the objections raised by the Delhi lieutenant governor to the panel.

The committee, which was initially constituted on May 27, never took off as the Delhi lieutenant governor did not approve it.

But, the Delhi high court in September allowed the constitution of an expert committee to probe the deaths related to oxygen shortage, stating that its function will not overlap with another Supreme Court sub-committee that was tasked with understanding what led to the shortage of oxygen, and what could be done to prevent such a situation in future.

The overlapping of the brief of the two committees was cited as one of the reasons by the LG office for not granting the approval.

“… pursuant to the directions of the Hon’ble High Court … the committee comprising of the following officers constituted to assess on case to case basis, complaints and/ or representations received regarding death due to lack of oxygen, for grant of ex-gratia compensation over and above the no-fault ex-gratia of R 50,000 already ordered by the government,” read the November 15 order, issued by deputy secretary of health and family welfare S Sunil. HT has seen the order.

According to the order, the committee comprises professor of medicine at Lok Nayak hospital, Dr Naresh Gupta; senior anaesthetists from the hospital, Dr Amit Kohli; senior anaesthetist from Lal Bahadur Shastri hospital, Dr Sanjeev Kumar; assistant director of planning at the directorate general of health services, Surendar Kumar; medical superintendent of Mata Chanan Devi hospital, Dr AC Shukla, and medical superintendent of Tirath Ram hospital, Dr JP Singh.

Calls to three of six committee members went unanswered; and a fourth member, on asked not to be named, confirmed that the committee has been “revived” but hasn’t met yet.

“Yes, the committee has been revived but we haven’t received any notice for meeting yet,” the member said.

The committee members remain the same, however, two additional terms of reference were added as per the November 15 order. The new terms of reference mentions that committee will pass a “reasoned order” only after examining all documents and asking the hospitals for an explanation. The committee has also been asked to conduct only a “fact finding” exercise and not assign fault to any hospital or nursing home, the order states.

On May 4, the Delhi government told the Delhi high court that an expert committee could not ascertain whether 21 deaths at Jaipur Golden Hospital had happened because of oxygen shortage. Later, health minister Satyendar Jain said that it was a “preliminary report”.

In June, the Delhi government proposed another expert committee to ascertain number of deaths caused by oxygen shortage in the Capital during the last wave of the pandemic but Baijal did not approve it.

On July 20, the central government told the Parliament that states recorded no deaths caused by oxygen shortage during the Covid-19 pandemic. With that, the AAP government in Delhi, revived its demand for setting up its own expert committee on the matter.

On August 16, Sisodia sent a file to Baijal’s office for the second time seeking approval for setting up the expert panel and sought Union home minister Amit Shah’s intervention in the matter. But, LG rejected the demand again.

At its peak, Delhi recorded around 28,300 cases in a day and a positivity rate exceeding 36% on April 20 and 22 respectively. Around that time, at least 31 people are believed to have died because of oxygen shortage in two separate incidents in two separate hospitals – Jaipur Golden and Batra hospitals.

Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia on August 25 said Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya has written to the Delhi government that it does not need to form a separate committee for probing oxygen related deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, citing a separate committee which is already working on it.

“The central government’s fraud on deaths due to lack of oxygen has come out in the open. Union health minister is presenting false arguments to avoid investigation. He has written to us saying Delhi government does not need to set up a committee to probe deaths caused by shortage of oxygen because a high-level committee, constituted under the Supreme Court’s direction, is already working on the matter across states,” Sisodia then said in a video press briefing.

Neither the task force set up by the Supreme Court, nor the sub-group formed in the states for oxygen audit is mandated to investigate the deaths due to lack of oxygen, the task force and the sub-group are mandated with configuring allocation of oxygen supply and medicines,” Sisodia added.

On September 21, a Delhi high court bench of justices Vipin Sanghi and Jasmeet Singh said that it does not see any difficulty in the constitution of the committee, which, besides finding the reasons for the death, will recommend the compensation amount for the families of those deceased.

“[The] Supreme Court [order] is on logistics and not specifics... We take it that there should be over overlap,” the bench said, clarifying that committee will not overlap with the areas already being looked into by the subcommittees constituted by the apex court.

Medical superintendent Dr SCL Gupta, of Batra hospital, where 12 critical Covid-19 patients, including a senior doctor from the hospital, died on May 1 due to an 80-minute disruption in oxygen supply, on Friday said that the hospital has received no communication from the committee.

Dr DK Baluja, medical superintendent of Jaipur Golden hospital, also said that the hospital received no communication from the committee. Twenty Covid-19 patients at the hospital died on April 23 after a drop in the oxygen pressure because of the shortage.

A senior official from a tertiary care hospital in the city, asking not to be named, said there was no mechanism to report deaths due to oxygen shortage so far because the last time the committee was disbanded as soon as it was constituted.

According to the order, the complaints will be received by the nursing home cell of the health department both online and offline. The committee will meet at least twice a week either physically or through video conferencing, and it will be empowered to seek documents from hospitals such as supply records and stock position. It will also check what were the steps taken by hospitals for maintaining sufficient oxygen stock, the order said.

“The committee will draw up an objective criteria to award compensation, limited to a maximum of R 5 lakhs in each case,” the order said.


    Anonna Dutt is a health reporter at Hindustan Times. She reports on Delhi government’s health policies, hospitals in Delhi, and health-related feature stories.

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