India’s mission oxygen with comprehensive partner Singapore began with a three sentence text message between external affairs minister S Jaishankar and foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan on April 22 with the second wave of pandemic leaving afflicted Indians breathless.
The SMS was followed by a telephone call between the two ministers as Jaishankar asked for medical oxygen and his Singaporean counterpart agreed with Prime Ministers of both countries kept in the loop. The Indian foreign minister asked his senior colleague defence minister Rajnath Singh to call in the Indian Air Force’s heavy transporters to pick the first four cryogenic tanks from Singapore which were needed to pick up liquid medical oxygen from east India to Covid-19 hit north and western parts of the country.
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Defence minister Rajnath Singh called up Indian Air Force (IAF) chief Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria, who was on a five-day official trip to France at that time, the same day in Paris. Leaving aside everything, Air Chief Bhadauria worked through the night to plan external and internal movement of transport planes. The entire transport fleet of IAF was placed on standby 24X7 with multiple sets of pilots as ‘Mission Oxygen’ began in earnest with a C-17 picking up four cryogenic containers from Changi in Singapore and reaching the transport hub of Panagarh in West Bengal.
The cryogenic tanks picked up oxygen from several steel plants on the road and hitched on Railway flat wagons to reach their destinations. While industrial units largely in eastern India produce oxygen in large quantities, there was a global shortage of specialised cryogenic tanks needed to transport liquid oxygen. It was here that India’s trusted and tried ally Singapore came to aid at a critical time by acting as a logistics hub for crucial medical items that India wanted to source from abroad. Indian High Commissioner to Singapore P Kumaran played his part by taking an early initiative to identify good sources from key medical items in the city nation.
On April 29, defence minister Rajnath Singh spoke to Singapore counterpart Ng Eng Hen about reinforcing capacities to fight the second wave of virus that had hit India. Two days later, Jaishankar again spoke to his Singaporean counterpart with the latter extremely forthcoming to help out India. Balakrishnan recalled how India had stood by Singapore in the first wave in 2021 and promised all support by sensitizing all other ministries in the city nation about national health emergency in India. In 2021, India had supplied critical items like hydroxy-chloroquinine, surgical masks, hand sanitizers and polypropylene material to Singapore.
After a series of flights by IAF’s C-17, IL-76, C-130 aircraft, India procured 46 cryogenic or ISO containers from Singapore which were landed at Panagarh, Chennai and Hindon, Ghaziabad to enhance the liquid oxygen supplies to various destinations in India. In addition to the ISO tanks, India has procured thousands of oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, BiPAP machines / ventilators and other items from Singapore. These have been ferried on IAF aircraft and Indian Navy ships.
In a special gesture, Singapore sent two of its own Air Force aircraft on April 28 carrying oxygen cylinders and other material. Separately, Singapore’s Temasek Foundation, in partnership with a number of Singaporean companies, donated over 8000 oxygen concentrators, 51000 oxymeters, over 900 BiPAP machines and 27 ventilators.
Joining hands with IAF, the Indian Navy played a key role in in evacuating medical supplies from Singapore by sending in amphibious warfare ship INS Airawat to Singapore. The Ship was in Singapore from May 2 to May 4 and loaded nearly 5000 oxygen cylinders of various capacities, eight ISO/cryogenic tanks, oxygen concentrators and even rapid antigen kits for supplies to South India as the virus was beginning to hit south of Vindhyachal.
On May 15, landing warship INS Jalashwa is reaching Singapore bay for loading 15 filled cryogenic containers and nearly 5,000 oxygen cylinders for India to meet the expected rise in demand in east and southern India.
The most encouraging part is that High Commissioner Kumaran has also been able to activate the large Indian community in Singapore, particularly the IIT, IIM alumni and TiE Singapore, as well as organizations like the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Little India Shop Owners Association to help raise funds and assist in procuring medical support and facilitating logistics.
For a country with a population of a Delhi suburb, Singapore, driven by active bilateral engagement, has turned out to be a critical lifeline to India in times of medical crisis.