Count Every Death


In 2019-20, India was haunted by the spectre of the NRC – a national register of citizens that Prime Minister Modi and his Home Minister Shah had promised. Modi and Shah had claimed that this exercise of forcing every Indian to “prove” citizenship to the government, through legacy documents.  

But now, reeling in the wake of a deadly Covid-19 second wave, Indians are in a situation where it is the dead, not the living, who are not being counted as citizens by the government, which is seeking to undercount Covid deaths to play down the scale of the disaster created by it.  

The BJP’s parent organisation the RSS Propagandists for the government are trying to tell us it is time to “move on” with the business of living. But to fight for life, we must look death in the face and name the killers. If we shut out eyes and silence our voices on the millions of Indians who died gasping for oxygen, we are only paving the way for our own deaths and deaths of millions more.   

The bland and comforting Covid-19 death tolls being announced by states all over India, and by the Central government, are belied by the horrific images of dead bodies washing up downstream of the Ganga river; bodies buried in makeshift graves on river banks; videos of people throwing a body into a river from a bridge; funeral pyres spilling out onto parking lots and streets; and metal frames of the crematorium furnaces melting as they were forced to burn round-the-clock without respite; not to mention the frantic cries of family members begging for oxygen and hospitals shutting doors because they ran out of oxygen.  

Excess Deaths

All over the world, undercounting is a phenomenon and actual Covid death tolls are being calculated by comparing the number of deaths in a given period this year, with the number of deaths in the same period in 2018 and 2019. The difference - called “excess deaths” – gives a fair idea of the actual scale of Covid deaths.

But India is among the worst in the world when it comes to deliberately and shamelessly undercounting deaths.

In India, the actual number of deaths can be calculated by looking at the Civil Registration System -  a nationwide record of all births and deaths headed by the Office of the Registrar General of India and implemented by state governments. Even in normal times, states usually register less than 80% of the actual number of deaths – still, the Civil Registration Numbers are the closest we have to an accurate record of deaths in India.  

Based on these calculations, journalists found the following:

In Madhya Pradesh, in  May 2021, the death toll was five times more than what has been normal in this month in previous years. In addition to cities, rural districts like Chhindwara also reported a much higher number of deaths than usual.

Rukmini S, writing for the Scroll, found that “In May 2018 and 2019, Madhya Pradesh saw a little over 31,000 deaths over the month on average. However in May 2021, Madhya Pradesh saw over 1.6 lakh reported deaths, or nearly five times the usual number of reported deaths. In all, Madhya Pradesh saw more than twice as many deaths between January 1 to May 31 this year compared to the 2018-’19 average.”

She also noted, “Officially, Madhya Pradesh reported just 4,461 Covid deaths between January 1 and May 31, 2021. The excess deaths seen in the same period are 42 times the reported Covid death toll.” These excess deaths may not all be Covid deaths – they could also be many deaths due to the “disruptions of routine health services” in this period, as a result of which persons with heart, kidney and other diseases could not access lifesaving medical care.

She ended by warning that “The final numbers for MP are likely to be even higher, as deaths are often registered with a significant lag.”

The Bihar story is even more stark. Aruveettil Mariyam Alavi wrote for NDTV, “About 1.3 lakh deaths were reported in Bihar in January-May 2019. The figure for the same time period in 2021 was almost 2.2 lakh, according to data from the state's Civil Registration System, showing a difference of about 82,500. More than half of this 62 per cent increase was reported in May this year. However, Bihar's official Covid death fatalities figure for January-May 2021 was 7,717. Yet, the overall number of official Covid deaths in the state is only a fraction of the excess deaths recorded by its Civil Registration System -- a difference of 74,808 to be precise.”

So the actual number of deaths in the second wave period is ten times the official Covid death toll admitted to by the Bihar Government.

Andhra Pradesh reported over 130,000 deaths in May 2021, or nearly five times the usual number of deaths reported in the month.

The excess deaths between January to May 2021 was 34 times the official Covid-19 toll.

Arunabh Saikia writing for the Scroll, found that in the first few months of the Covid-19 first wave, “Assam saw 28,000 more deaths than normal, and the excess deaths were 30 times the official Covid-19 death count.”

In Tamil Nadu where the situation is considerably better, the excess deaths amount to four times the official Covid-19 death toll. In Karnataka the excess deaths amount to six times the official Covid-19 death toll.

The news website Article-14 obtained mortality data under the RTI Act for Uttar Pradesh – the state where you can be arrested for reporting oxygen shortage, Covid deaths, or bodies in the Ganga. It found that “Excess deaths in UP districts with highest official caseload were between 10 to 335 times higher than the government’s Covid-19 death toll over nine months to 31 March 2021.” And this is the period covering the first wave and the very beginning of the second wave – minus the peak months of the second wave, April and May 2021.

Article-14 reported:
Here are data for six districts, disaggregated:

Balia, close to Ghazipur, registered 7,300 excess deaths, about 120% more than the same period in 2019-20 and 68 times higher than the official Covid-19 death toll of 107.

Unnao registered over 10,400 excess deaths, about 134% more than 2019-20, and 117 times more than the official death toll of 90.

Kanpur Dehat (rural) registered 4,040 excess deaths, 236% more than 2019-20, and 106 times more than the official toll of 38.

In Amethi, about 13,000 more people had died than normal, more than 1700% than 2019-20. The official death toll was 39, or 335 times less.

Lucknow district, which hosts the state capital, registered over 30,200 excess deaths, 524% more than 2019-20 and 25 times more than the official death toll of 1,211.

Bareilly registered 12,000 excess deaths, 72% more than 2019-20and 73 times more than the official death toll of 166. During the second wave, Union Minister Santosh Gangwar, the BJP MP from Bareilly, wrote a letter to Adityanath, expressing “grave concern” over the State’s pandemic mismanagement.

Agra district, where on 12 May 2021 Article 14, anecdotally, found vast underreporting, registered around 10,000 excess deaths, 103% more than 2019-20 and 56 times more than the official death toll of 178.

Apart from the 24 districts, most other districts registered deaths 20% to 150% in excess of 2019-20 and between five to 100 times higher than the official Covid-19 death toll.