As the world responds to India’s Covid SOS, questions have emerged over whether foreign aid, including a vast number of oxygen machines and life-saving drugs, is reaching its destination. Government officials admit to “teething problems” in distributing foreign aid. To tackle one of them – delays at customs – the government today put out an online form for importers.
Twenty flights have arrived with foreign aid but a large number of oxygen concentrators and Remdesivir have been stuck at customs for weeks. Sheer logistics and “compatibility problems” are causing delays, officials have told NDTV.
“The first priority is to send foreign aid to government hospitals since they offer these facilities free of cost,” the official said.
For example, he explained, oxygen cylinders that arrived from the UK were sent to Delhi’s Lady Hardinge hospital, Safdarjung, AIIMS and DRDO hospitals in Delhi, Ahmedabad and Patna.
Offers of aid, pouring from abroad, are being processed under different categories like – government to government, private to government, private to states, private sector and Indians overseas and NGOs.
“We process offers of aid that are coming – anything from oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, oxygen generating machines, ventilators, oxygen beds, medicines are being accepted immediately,” said the official.
The offer is sent to the Union Health Ministry, which then puts it on a WhatsApp group of an inter-ministerial group for decisions like what to accept.
“The problem is some offers come with different specifications, so technical teams looks at those details whether they are compatible or not,” said officials.
So far 20 flights have come from abroad with aid. Some 900 oxygen cylinders, 1,600 concentrators and 1,217 ventilators have arrived apart from life-saving medicines.
The problems in distributing them include the logistics of sending these by vehicles to their destinations.
“We are trying to save lives but we are racing against time,” the officials said.
Yesterday, the Delhi High Court asked the Centre for details of oxygen concentrators lying at the airport, waiting for Customs clearance at a time hospitals and Covid patients are in crisis.
Senior advocate Krishnan Venugopal urged the court to ask the customs department to clear the oxygen concentrators “on war footing”. He also said 3,000 concentrators meant for Max Hospitals were lying with customs for clearance. To the court’s question on how many concentrators were stuck at customs, the centre said: “This is a dynamic number. There is an order saying the clearance process has to be completed within 3 hours.”
To address the bottlenecks at airports and ports, the Finance Ministry’s Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) today issued an online form to speed up customs clearance for Covid-related medicines and equipment.
On Thursday, at a US State Department briefing, questions were raised by a journalist on the aid sent to India.
“We are sending these planeloads of material to India. But our journalist in Delhi is reporting that even after trying for two days, he has been unable to find out who is taking away the oxygen concentrators, medicines, or how much is arriving,” the journalist said.
“There is no website or transparent system where people can apply to get this. So this accountability for the US taxpayers’ money being sent, is there anything being done to check how it is being distributed, the aid we are sending?”
State Department Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter said there was no information on any “specific” website.
“But rest assured that the United States is committed to making sure our partners in India are taken care of,” she replied.