How Punjab and the centre allowed hundreds of PM-CARES ventilators to lie unused for months

25 May 2021
A health worker places a defunct ventilator in an Amritsar hospital amid the COVID-19 second wave on 14 May 2021. That month, news broke that hundreds of PM-CARES ventilators in Punjab were lying unused because they had not been installed or repaired.
NARINDER NANU / AFP /Getty Images
A health worker places a defunct ventilator in an Amritsar hospital amid the COVID-19 second wave on 14 May 2021. That month, news broke that hundreds of PM-CARES ventilators in Punjab were lying unused because they had not been installed or repaired.
NARINDER NANU / AFP /Getty Images

In May 2020, Gurpreet Singh Chandbaja, the founder of a non-profit that works with cancer patients, first raised the issue of unused ventilators at the Guru Gobind Singh Medical College and Hospital, in Punjab’s Faridkot district. He spoke to the medical superintendent about the unused ventilators, which were among 809 units that the centre had allotted to Punjab under the PM-CARES fund. Over the next year, Chandbaja visited the hospital multiple times, and saw more ventilators gathering dust each visit. Finally, in May this year, Chandbaja took a photo of dozens of unused ventilators in the hospital, which made its way to Kultar Singh Sandhwan, the Aam Aadmi Party’s member of legislative assembly from Faridkot’s Kotkapura city. Sandhwan tweeted the image on 11 May. Soon after, news broke that the Punjab government was yet to install or repair hundreds of unused ventilators.

The Congress-led Punjab government, on its part, has blamed the central government for providing faulty ventilators under the Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations, or PM-CARES, fund. In May 2020, the centre had announced the allocation of Rs 2,000 crore for the manufacture of 50,000 “Made-in-India ventilators.” As of April this year, Punjab had received all 809 units, but at least 251 of them were uninstalled, according to the central government. The state, meanwhile, has claimed that a large number of PM-CARES ventilators in the state are either out of order, or lying unused because doctors had found them to be unreliable.

The union health ministry, on the other hand, has maintained that the ventilators are in working condition and simply need to be operated properly in accordance with the user manual. In its defence, the centre has pointed out that engineers who have been deputed to Punjab to install the ventilators have found them to be in working condition, which just needed to be set up as per the instructions. In support of its argument, the centre noted that on 12 May—the day after Sandhwan tweeted the image—an engineer visited the Faridkot hospital and made five ventilators functional only by replacing a few components as stated in the manual. “Thereby, further making it evident that when operated properly, the ventilators will provide reliable performance,” a central government press release stated.

It is not entirely clear which government is responsible for hundreds of ventilators left uninstalled or unrepaired at a time when patients are gasping for breath as they try to find a bed in an intensive-care unit equipped with ventilators. By most indications, the fault does not lie entirely with one government, but with both of them for continuously passing the buck. Indisputably, while Punjab and the centre played politics for months, the ones who suffered the consequences were the patients whose lives were at stake.

Chandbaja is the founder of the Bhai Ghannaya Cancer Roko Sewa Society, which is based in Faridkot, and frequently visited the Guru Gobind Singh hospital to help cancer patients with medication and chemotherapy even during the pandemic. Chandbaja told me that he had first raised the issue of unused ventilators in the district’s Guru Gobind Singh hospital in May 2020. However, Shilekh Mittal, the medical superintendent at the hospital, told me that the first batch of PM-CARES ventilators arrived only in June, which would suggest that the hospital previously had unused ventilators of its own that it had not repaired since the first wave of the pandemic.

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with two decades of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.

Keywords: COVID-19 Punjab ventilator Ministry of Health and Family Welfare
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