Fudging the death count in Varanasi

Print edition : June 18, 2021

At the Manikarnika Ghat crematorium in Varanasi on April 17. Photo: PTI

Under-reporting of COVID deaths marks the pandemic situation in Uttar Pradesh.

“FOR every COVID death noted in official records, there are at least five that are not recorded, either by design or by default.” This is how social activist and political observer Ravinder Kumar, who heads the Rashtriya Mukti Morcha (RMM), known for its many legal battles against corruption in high places, sums up the COVID-19 situation in Uttar Pradesh. Scores of people across the State agree with his observation. Colonel (retired) Subhash Chandra Deswal, a progressive farmer who is active in a farmers collective based in Sikandrabad in western Uttar Pradesh, said that while he had no fix on COVID statistics in the State, there was little doubt that ailments with symptoms similar to COVID were rampant in the rural areas, and a majority of those afflicted did not venture out for treatment fearing the expenses it could result in.

The farmers collective enables Deswal to keep in touch with a number of villages and semi-urban centres. He told Frontline that the information he got from all parts of Uttar Pradesh as well as Haryana indicated massive under-reporting of cases, along with marked hesitancy among the poor to go for treatment.

Reports from several regions and sectors, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency of Varanasi, the teaching community across the State and the important religious centre of Prayagraj (previously Allahabad) underscore the validity and seriousness of these observations. Happenings in Varanasi are already a matter of heated debate both within the State and in other parts of India. Central to this is the huge disparity in the number of deaths as noted in the official records and the numbers arrived at on the basis of local inputs, including those received from cemeteries in the town. As per the government’s records, 227 COVID-related deaths occurred in Varanasi between April 1 and May 7. The district surveillance office (DSO), which monitors COVID cases, added that the total number of COVID-related deaths in the district in the past year was 650.

People in Varanasi view the data with scepticism. An important parameter of the intensity of the pandemic, as far as the people are concerned, is the number of deaths that get reported at the Manikarnika Ghat, the cremation area that is known to be in existence for centuries. The officials in charge there stated that approximately 1,500 bodies were cremated at the ghat between April 15 and 23. People living in the vicinity of Manikarnika Ghat and 12 other smaller cremation centres in the district told Frontline that in April there was an exponential increase in the number of bodies brought for cremation.

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Incidentally, the surge in the cases in April, as recorded by the official machinery, is a corollary factor. As per government data of April 1, there were 196 new cases in the district, and the total number of active cases was 622. However, the data released on April 15, stated that there were 1,484 new cases and 11,756 active cases. By April 30, the number of active cases had increased to 16,345. Residents of the area aver that this rise in the number of cases would have reflected in the number of deaths and concomitantly cremations.

However, during his interaction with local mediapersons, district nodal officer V.S. Roy, who monitors the COVID situation, asserted that the administration did not undercount the deaths. In his view, private hospitals were responsible for any mismatch between actual deaths and the ones reported officially. Roy said all COVID cases were entered in the dedicated portal and only deaths of those patients already in the list were counted as COVID deaths. He said private hospitals either suppressed or did not properly report COVID-related deaths on the dedicated portal. Roy said whenever officials noted discrepancy in the number of deaths, the authorities circulated an Excel sheet to private hospitals seeking details of the deaths that happened under their care.

Another view that prevails among officials is that not all the bodies that come for cremation at Manikarnika Ghat or Harishchandra Ghat, the other prominent cremation area in the district, are from Varanasi. The District Surveillance Officer S.K. Kannaujia said people from the neighbouring districts of Jaunpur, Bhadohi, Sonbhadra, Chandauli and Azamgarh brought bodies for cremation to these ghats in view of the religious sentiments attached to the cremation of the dead in the holy town of Varanasi. Roy and Kannaujia were certain that the confusion over the number of deaths would be cleared soon.

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However, it is not Varanasi alone that has presented this glaring mismatch between official records and popular perception based on concrete factors on the ground. As per records maintained at the crematoria in Prayagaraj, at least 1,000 more bodies were cremated between April 1 and 30. On an average, approximately 350 cremations take place in the crematoria along the Triveni sangam (the tri-junction of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati) in April. However, more than 1,300 bodies were cremated in April. The staff at these crematoria agree that not all the bodies were of people who died of COVID. . Notwithstanding this, the fact remains that the Uttar Pradesh government has no proper system to track and record COVID patients and the mortality rate.

The raging debate between the government and teachers unions on the number of COVID deaths among the Education Department staff deployed for the four-phased panchayat elections in the State is a stark illustration of maladministration. The tabulations done by teachers’ unions put the number of total deaths of the Education Department staff deployed in the elections at 2,046. This list has 1,621 education workers of the State Basic Education Department and 425 education workers of the Secondary Education Department. The response of Satish Chandra Dwivedi, Minister of State for Basic Education, to this tabulation shocked the unions. He expressed sorrow at the deaths but maintained that all the deaths could not be attributed to the elections. Dwivedi added that according to government data, only three teachers had succumbed to COVID.

The Minister’s claim was questioned by teachers’ unions, which produced letters written by several government officials from various districts to the Secretary of the Basic Education Council during the elections. These letters included the ones from district officers of Deoria and Jhansi, which stated that 34 Education Department staff deployed on election duty had died. Evidently, stung by these revelations, the Yogi Adityanath government blamed the Election Commission and its guidelines on election duties for the faulty death count. According Navneet Sehgal, Additional Chief Secretary (Information), the government has initiated discussions with the Election Commission to bring about changes in the guidelines to benefit the family of the deceased.

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A resolute public opinion holding sway in the State is that discussions such as these, by themselves, cannot hide the inadequacies in the BJP government’s COVID management system that have been laid bare by the series of deaths and related developments in Varanasi and elsewhere in the State.

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