‘Are you living in ivory towers’: Centre gets HC rap over Delhi’s oxygen crisis

ASKING why contempt action should not be initiated against it for not complying with judicial orders on oxygen supply to the Capital, the Delhi High Court Tuesday told the Centre that it might choose to “dig its head like an ostrich in the sand”, but the court will not. Noting that people are dying, the HC asked the government: “Are you living in ivory towers?”

As the Centre said that it had submitted an affidavit with data to the Supreme Court on Delhi’s requirement of oxygen, a Division Bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli, addressing Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati and ASG Chetan Sharma said: “Therefore the Central government is going to quibble about these little things so as to justify not supplying oxygen to Delhi and let people die? You are not even giving 500 MT (metric tonnes, of oxygen). While we are going on with the hearing, there are several hospitals and nursing homes saying they are not getting oxygen. Where do you think all that oxygen is going if it’s sufficient?”

It continued, “You are part of this city, you know what is happening. You do not know? Are you living in ivory towers? Where are you living? You may choose to dig your head like an ostrich in the sand but we will not… We are not going to have ‘no’ for an answer. There is no way that you are not going to supply 700 MT, by whatever means.”

The court had directed Additional Secretaries of Home and Commerce Ministry, respectively, Piyush Goyal and Sumita Dawra to remain present during the hearing on Wednesday to answer the query regarding initiation of contempt proceedings.

The Centre said that it had met Delhi’s oxygen deficit by increasing its allocation to 590 MT from 490 MT, and that its “compliance affidavit” to be placed before the Supreme Court explained how much Delhi required and a chart showing the demand made by state governments.

The court said it failed to understand “what good a compliance affidavit would do” given that the Supreme Court had taken note that Delhi’s daily demand was 700 MT, and this was not being supplied. It was “unfair” for the government to now say it was going to supply only 590 MT, and even this had not come through for a single day, the Division Bench noted.

The judges also disagreed with the Centre’s submission that the Supreme Court had not directed it to supply 700 MT, adding it was pained that oxygen for treatment of Covid-19 patients in Delhi should be viewed “the way it has been done by the Central government”.

“We are not going to accept this submission. We are bound to ensure compliance of it. We are entitled to go into this aspect. We had also passed an order that, by whatever means, you have to arrange the oxygen. Just because we told your officer that contempt is the last thing on our mind, it does not mean you will take it lightly. It is there. Just don’t drive us there. We mean business. We have said this earlier too.”

The High Court added: “We are facing the grim reality every day of people not being able to secure oxygen beds or even ICU beds. The situation has come to this that hospitals and nursing homes have had to reduce the number of beds… because they are not able to service their existing capacities as well due to shortage of oxygen.”

The Division Bench also took strong exception to the Centre’s argument that Delhi government counsel Senior Advocate Rahul Mehra’s submission was “always tainted and loaded” and its description of the state’s statement before court that “people are dying”, as “rhetoric” that needed to be eschewed. “Is it only rhetoric?” the court said. “Is it not a fact? This is not fair. It is the reality. We don’t accept your statement. You may be blind. We are not blind. We will not shut our eyes.”

When ASG Sharma said his submission was that this “emotional quotient” be set aside for a while, the court said, “When people die, it is an emotional matter! It is a matter of people’s lives and liberty.”

Following the hearing, ASG Sharma requested the court to upload the order on Wednesday morning and submitted, “I have seen the pain of your lordships. I cannot say anything, I bow down completely. It is for you lordships to accept my request or reject my request… I see the latter coming.”. However, the court said the order would be uploaded on Tuesday itself.