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Describing the situation in the national capital as “really critical", the Supreme Court on Wednesday directed the central government to ensure that Delhi receives 700 tonnes of medical oxygen supplies every day and asked for a detailed plan on how it intends to do so.

The bench of justices Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah also stayed the contempt proceedings initiated by the Delhi high court against the Centre on Tuesday over the shortage in oxygen supply. But the apex court clarified that it is conditioned on the Union government’s admission that the court order of 2 May required the Centre to supply 700 metric tonnes of oxygen to Delhi until further orders.

Introducing a personal element to the hearing, the court said even judges feel “helpless" as people plead for help due to the shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and essential medicines in the national capital.

“We are not only judges but also citizens of this country. Justice Shah and I have been continuously on the phone trying to come up with some solution by using our good offices. But we are also helpless. So, we can understand what a common man and citizens feel. We are ultimately answerable to the people," the bench told solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who represented the Centre.

The court shot down a suggestion by Mehta to not insist on 700 tonnes for Delhi while the Centre tries to supply as much as possible.

“We can’t accept this as an institutional response. The situation of Delhi is really critical. We are answerable to the citizens, and we know with 550 tonnes (the amount that reached Delhi on Tuesday) what is happening on the ground. Our friendships are limited because of our positions, but our offices are getting numerous calls, and the lawyers and others are crying. They plead, ‘please do something’. When 550 tonnes is not solving the problem of Delhi, we cannot review our orders... there is tremendous anxiety on the part of the citizens to run from pillar to post for oxygen and cylinders," the court told Mehta.

Mehta, on his part, pressed for an audit to figure out Delhi’s real requirement and optimal utilization of medical oxygen before determining the final number. The bench accepted the suggestion for an audit and asked the Centre and Delhi government to suggest some names by Thursday morning for a panel that would examine this. But it made it clear that the 2 May order for 700 tonnes shall remain in force unless it is modified.

The oxygen crisis in the Capital has been ascribed to a lower allocation by the Centre despite demands from the Delhi government for an increased oxygen quota and the Delhi government’s failure to arrange for cryogenic tankers and trucks to transport the allocated oxygen.

“Nobody can dispute it is a national disaster. Nobody can dispute there is a deficit of oxygen. Nobody can dispute some people have lost lives due to a shortage of oxygen. So, now let us ensure lives are saved. We want you to ensure 700 tonnes is given between today and Monday (when the special bench takes up the matter initiated on its own) so that it takes the sting off the immediate humanitarian crisis in Delhi," it said.

The bench asked Mehta to submit a tabulated statement by 10.30am on Thursday, indicating the manner in which its order is complied with and the details on sources of supply, transportation and other logistical arrangements. “This plan will remain in operation till further orders of the court," it ordered.

About the contempt proceedings initiated by the Delhi high court on Tuesday, the bench expressed displeasure with the Centre’s law officers trying to misinterpret the Supreme Court’s order on 700 tonnes to wriggle out of the liability.

“Why did your additional solicitors general (ASG) tell the high court we didn’t order for 700 tonnes? The problem is when your law officers argue like this, and then you get into a crossfire. Tell your ASGs not to misinterpret orders...Hauling up anyone in contempt will not get anybody oxygen in the country. We want the oxygen to come," it told Mehta.

The court also asked the officials of the Centre and Delhi government to have a meeting on Wednesday evening for deliberation on the supply and distribution of oxygen and examine the “Mumbai model" of optimal utilization of oxygen.

The solicitor general cited the “Mumbai model", pointing out that despite having a caseload of 92,000 as of 10 April, Mumbai made do with just 275 tonnes of oxygen. The city also made arrangements for buffer storage for imminent requirements. The court said that the Delhi government should consider replicating this model for the national capital.

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